Diabetes mellitus is estimated to affect 8% of the United States
population. The CDC estimates the prevalence of this condition to be about 10% in Texas. The most common type of diabetes is when the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin, which is a hormone that regulates one's blood sugar levels. With the elevated blood-sugar levels, patients have to urinate frequently and experience excessive thirst. Over time, diabetes mellitus increase the patient’s risk for heart attacks and strokes and can cause multiple organ damage.
Diabetes can cause damage to the eye in the form of diabetic
retinopathy. Diabetes causes the blood vessels of the retina in the back of the eye to become fragile and damaged. These weak blood vessels will leak fluid or blood and cause swelling and/or scar tissue to form. This in turn can blur or distort the images that the retina sends to the brain.
The risk of developing diabetic retinopathy increases the longer one has diabetes. Approximately 80% of people with at least a 15-year history of diabetes have some blood vessel damage to their retina. Diabetic retinopathy is particularly likely to occur at a younger age in juvenile, or Type I, diabetics. It is the leading cause of blindness among adults in the United States, and people with untreated diabetes are said to 25 times more prone to blindness than the general population.
However, with improved diagnostic techniques and treatment only a small percentage of those who develop retinopathy actually have serious vision loss.
Types of Diabetic Retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy can be divided into two types:
Background diabetic retinopathy (BDR): This is an early stage of retinopathy in which tiny blood vessels in the retina become damaged and leak blood or fluid. Sometimes, the leaking fluid collects in the macula, the part of the retina that lets us see fine details. This problem is known as macular edema. Vision may be affected if this occurs.
Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR): This is a later stage of retinopathy in which new, abnormal blood vessels begin growing on the surface of the retina. These new blood vessels are fragile and can easily break and bleed, causing hemorrhages in the center and back of the eye. Vision may be severely decreased if this occurs. Additionally, the new blood vessels may grow scar tissue that pulls the retina away from the back of the eye. This retinal detachment usually needs to be repaired with a surgery. Abnormal blood vessels may also grow in the front of the eye, potentially leading to glaucoma.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diabetic retinopathy may not cause any symptoms in the early stages. Later in the course of retinopathy, one may notice floaters and/or decreased vision. The best protection against diabetic retinopathy is to have regular medical examinations by an ophthalmologist. If vision-threatening disease is discovered, a prompt referral to a retina specialist will be done in order to protect and improve vision.