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Diabetic Eye Disease: A Leading Cause of Blindness

November is National Diabetes Month, when communities join to bring awareness to the disease. From an eye care standpoint, diabetic eye disease is a leading cause of blindness in the United States. Early detection and timely treatment can greatly reduce the risk of vision loss and blindness.

Diabetes is a condition where the body has too much glucose (sugar) in the blood. This occurs because the body either doesn’t make or can’t use the hormone insulin as it should, causing sugar to build up. Eventually the buildup of sugar leads to a variety of complications, primarily for the heart, blood vessels, kidneys and eyes.

Diabetic eye disease is a group of eye conditions that can affect people with diabetes. These include: 1) cataracts: diabetics are two to five times more likely than those without the disease to develop cataracts; 2) glaucoma: a disease that damages the eye’s optic nerve, which carries images from your eye to your brain; 3) macular edema: swelling in the retina causing changes in central vision; and 4) diabetic retinopathy (DR): occurs when small blood vessels that nourish the retina deteriorate causing leakage. It is the most common cause of vision loss among people with diabetes.

What are the symptoms of DR? Usually there are no early symptoms of DR, and the disease often progresses unnoticed until it affects vision and may eventually cause blindness. Bleeding inside of the eye from abnormal blood vessels can cause the appearance of spots, blurred vision, dark/empty areas in your vision or fluctuating vision.

How is diabetic eye disease detected?

Diabetic eye changes can be detected during an eye examination through dilated pupils where medicated eye drops are used to temporarily enlarge the pupils. Through the dilated eye, the optometrist can see more of the retina and check for early signs of the disease before noticeable vision loss has occurred.

How can diabetic eye disease be prevented?

Anyone who has diabetes can develop diabetic eye disease; however, the threat of developing eye conditions increases with particular risk factors. The most important are chronically high blood sugar and duration of the diabetes. Other risk factors include high cholesterol, pregnancy, tobacco use and being African-American, Hispanic or Native American.

By managing your diabetes through healthy eating and physical activity, as well as obtaining routine exams and blood work, risks of diabetic eye disease may be minimized. Cooperation between your primary doctor and eye doctor are critical. Blood vessel changes detected during an eye exam are likely occurring throughout your entire body, so eye health often depicts overall body health – the eye truly is a window into your health.

Vision loss from DR may be irreversible; however, early detection is key. Because DR often lacks symptoms, routine eye exams (at least once a year) are necessary to determine if, and when, treatment is needed to save vision. Diabetic retinopathy is often treated with laser surgery or ocular injections aimed to shrink the abnormal retinal blood vessels or seal leaking blood vessels. Early intervention and detection can help prevent severe vision loss.

Remember, having diabetes doesn’t necessarily lead to vision loss. By taking an active role in diabetes management and having annual dilated eye exams, complications may be prevented. FBN

By Dr. Amanda Grimh

Dr. Amanda Grimh is the newest addition to Eye Care Associates. She was born and raised in Flagstaff and attended Flagstaff High School and Northern Arizona University before attending Pacific University College of Optometry in Oregon. Dr. Grimh, formerly McCullough, knew her hometown was where she wanted to practice and is happy to finally make this dream a reality. When not taking care of patients, Dr. Grimh enjoys traveling, being outdoors and spending time with her husband and two children.

Eye Care Associates, 940 N Switzer Canyon Dr., # 101, Flagstaff, Ariz., 86001. For more information, call 928-774-7949 or eyecareassociatesonline.com.

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