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Diabetic Eye Disease

There are approximately 16 million Americans who have either Type I (juvenile onset) or Type II (adult onset) diabetes. All are at risk of developing sight-threatening eye diseases that are common complication of diabetes. Early detection and timely treatment can substantially reduce the risk of severe visual loss or blindness from diabetic eye disease. Unfortunately many people at risk are not having their eyes examined regularly to detect these problems before they impair vision.

What is diabetic eye disease?

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of sight threatening eye conditions that may develop as a result of systemic diabetes. They include:
  • Diabetic retinopathy: Diabetes attacks the blood vessels located in the retina. The retina is the tissue at the back of the eye that translates light into electrical signals that the brain interprets as vision. About ½ of the estimated 16 million people have early signs of diabetic retinopathy. Of this group, about 700,000 have serious retinal disease, with approximately 65,000 Americans progressing each year to proliferative retinopathy, the disease's most sight-threatening stage. Annually, as many as 25,000 people go blind from the disorder, making it a leading cause of blindness among working-age Americans.
  • Cataract: People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop a cataract as someone who does not have the disease. In addition, cataracts tend to develop at an earlier age in people with diabetes.
  • Glaucoma: This disease occurs when increased fluid pressure in the eye leads to progressive optic nerve damage. People with diabetes are nearly twice as likely to develop glaucoma as other adults.

Cataracts and glaucoma also affect many people who do not have diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease and it only occurs in patients with systemic diabetes. Although anyone with diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy, research shows that people with Type I diabetes are more likely to develop retinopathy. Among people with Type II diabetes, duration of disease is an important risk factor. The longer you are diabetic the chance of retinopathy increases.

What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

For many people with diabetic retinopathy, there are no early warning symptoms. There is no pain, no blurred vision, and no ocular inflammation. In fact, many people do not develop any visual impairment until the disease is well advanced. Some people in the early and advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy may notice a change in their central and/or color vision. Because of the lack of symptoms it is usually undetected until your eye care specialist discovers it at an eye examination. For this reason the National Eye Institute recommends that people with diabetes undergo a comprehensive eye examination at least once a year. At this examination you should expect to have your pupils dilated with eye drops. This allows the practitioner to better examine the back of the eye for early signs of disease.

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