Diabetes is a common condition that affects millions of people around the world. Many of them will experience eye-related complications of diabetes through conditions like diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, glaucoma and macular edema.
If you live with diabetes, being proactive about your eye care can make a huge difference to your health. Learning the best ways to prevent, treat and manage these conditions can help to protect your quality of life by keeping your eyes healthy and your vision clear.
Diabetes affects the eyes differently, sometimes leading to conditions that cause vision loss and even blindness.
Because diabetes affects blood sugar levels, it can weaken the network of blood vessels within the eyes. For example, diabetic retinopathy is caused when the blood vessels leading to the retina are damaged. The retina absorbs light that is sent as visual information to the brain — when damaged, it can cause vision loss and blindness.
In macular edema, another complication of diabetes, a part of the retina swells leading to vision becoming blurry and wavy.
Glaucoma, an eye condition affecting the optic nerve, is also more common in people with diabetes. The condition is caused by increased pressure within the eye, which may be the result of abnormal blood vessel growth associated with diabetes.
Cataracts occur when proteins in the eye’s lens break down causing cloudy vision. This condition is also more common in people with diabetes.
Diabetic Retinopathy is a complication of diabetes caused by damage to the blood vessels in the retina. When blood sugar levels are too high, the walls of the blood vessels in the eye can weaken and leak. The retina is a light-sensitive tissue that allows visual information to be transferred to the optic nerve – when its blood vessels are damaged it causes vision loss and can be sight-threatening.
The symptoms of diabetic retinopathy progress over time. They include blurry vision, difficulty in seeing colours, floaters (dark patches or shapes that drift across your vision), empty patches in your vision and vision that fluctuates during the day.
Your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy can be reduced by carefully managing blood sugar levels, staying up-to-date with any medications prescribed for your diabetes and maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.
If you live with diabetes, there are some steps you can take to improve your eye health and protect your vision.
Controlling blood sugar levels and keeping them stable will limit the effect they have on your eyes. Your doctor will provide you with recommendations on how to use medications, diet and monitoring to keep your blood sugar levels in check.
Changing your lifestyle can also help to limit your risk of diabetic eye conditions. This includes quitting smoking, getting more exercise, altering your diet and limiting the amount of alcohol you drink. A balanced diet with a lot of fruits, vegetables, grains, healthy fats and limited sugar is especially important.
Following your doctor’s advice and adhering closely to prescribed medicine is also important. Monitoring your condition can also ensure that any complications are identified early on and your recommendations from your doctor stay up-to-date and accurate.
Eye exams are often where diabetes is first diagnosed. The condition can affect the eyes in many different ways and a comprehensive eye exam is an excellent way to stay on top of any changes. Regular and detailed exams ensure that conditions are spotted even if they are not yet exhibiting any symptoms.
Treatment outcomes for many eye conditions are more successful when they are spotted early. Staying proactive about your eye health and ensuring you do not miss these appointments can make a huge difference for your vision and health.
Many conditions associated with diabetes can be effectively treated or managed, especially when they are caught early on. Each condition has a variety of treatment options and so you should closely follow the advice of your doctor or optometrist to determine which options will be best for you.
Diabetic retinopathy is treated when it starts to threaten your vision. Laser treatment is a popular option in which weakened blood vessels are sealed using a laser – this helps to limit bleeding in the eye. While it cannot counteract any vision loss, in most cases it can stop it from getting worse. There are possible complications including reduced vision in certain areas and eye floaters.
Eye injections are sometimes used to stop new blood vessels from forming in the back of the eye. These new blood vessels are weak in people with retinopathy and tend to bleed, so the injections stop them from developing in the first place. The main two types of medicine used are ranibizumab (Lucentis) and aflibercept (Eylea) (NHS Choices, 2020).
Vitrectomy is a kind of eye surgery sometimes used in severe cases of retinopathy when there is blood within certain areas of the eye or scar tissue that has caused or cause retinal detachment. During the surgery, the vitreous gel within the eye will be removed and replaced with a synthetic solution. This should stop further vision loss and can restore lost vision.
These treatment options have various risks and you should follow your doctor’s recommendation and carefully consider how to treat your condition.
Lifestyle Tips for Good Eye Health
Maintaining good eye health practices can help protect you from complications of diabetes.
As we have mentioned, maintaining a good diet is a vital part of looking after your health when you have diabetes. For eye health, a nutritious diet rich in vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids is advisable. This means eating a balanced diet including green leafy vegetables, fatty fish like tuna and salmon, nuts and seeds. A registered dietician can be helpful in finding a diet that is specifically appropriate for your health.
Smoking is strongly linked to many different eye conditions including cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. Quitting smoking can be extremely challenging, but will make a huge difference in your general health and minimise your risk of developing potentially sight-threatening eye conditions.
Support Resources and Organisations
Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed with diabetes or have been living with it for some time, it can often feel overwhelming. Staying informed about the best ways to manage diabetes and seeking support from healthcare professionals and other people with the condition, can make a big difference in your everyday life.
There are many support organisations, online communities and resources available to provide you with the help you need.
Diabetes can affect your eyes and cause serious problems with your vision. Understanding the best ways to monitor and protect your eye health can help you keep your eyesight in good shape.
Prioritising your eye care can help make the most out of life without having to deal with vision loss or expensive and difficult treatments.
If you are diagnosed with a complication of diabetes affecting the eyes, we encourage you to reach out and use the resources, support and care available to you so you don’t have to manage your condition alone.
NHS Choices (2020). Treatment: Diabetic retinopathy. [online] NHS. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/diabetic-retinopathy/treatment/