are approximately 29 million Americans age 20 and older who have
diabetes and almost one third of those are at risk for vision loss
because they do not know they have the disease.
“This is a tragedy waiting to happen because people with diabetes can
develop diabetic retinopathy, a degenerative disease of the retina (the
sensitive area at the back of the eye), which affects 5.3 million
Americans age 18 and older,” said Esther Bowie, M.D., a retina
specialist at MUSC Storm Eye Institute (SEI).
As part of November’s Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month,
ophthalmologists are urging Americans with diabetes to get a dilated
eye exam this year. Pregnant women with diabetes should have an eye
exam in the first trimester, since diabetic eye disease can progress
rapidly during pregnancy.
The longer a person has diabetes, the greater the risk for developing
diabetic retinopathy. However, diabetic retinopathy does not only
affect people who have had diabetes for many years, it can also appear
within the first year or two after the onset of the disease. For some
people, diabetic retinopathy is one of the first signs of the disease.
High blood sugar levels can weaken blood vessels in the eye’s retina
causing them to leak blood or fluid. This causes the retina to swell
and can lead to vision loss. Blood sugar fluctuations can also promote
growth of new, fragile blood vessels on the retina, which can break
easily and leak blood into the vitreous (the clear, jelly-like
substance that fills the center of the eye.) This can blur vision and
lead to permanent vision impairment. High blood pressure and smoking
can further damage blood vessels as well.
“In the presence of diabetic retinopathy, elevated blood pressure can
decrease vision due to increased leakage of fragile blood vessels.
Controlling blood pressure can reverse these changes. Blood pressure
and blood glucose control is essential in diabetes management,” said
Narendra Patel, M.D., also a retina specialist at SEI.
What are the signs to look for? Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can
temporarily affect vision, so it’s sometimes difficult to know if a
serious eye problem is developing. That’s one of the reasons strict
control of your blood sugar is so important. If you notice a vision
change in one eye, a change that lasts more than a day or two or
changes not associated with fluctuations in blood sugar, call your eye
If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, said Carolyn Cavanaugh, R.N., be
sure to schedule a complete dilated eye exam once a year or as often as
your eye doctor suggests. Don’t smoke and keep your blood sugar under
control through diet and exercise.
SEI is offering a free diabetic retinopathy screening Nov. 13 by appointment. Call MUSC Health Connection at 792-1414.
Friday, Nov. 6, 2009