Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease and is one of the leading causes of blindness in adults. The retina sits at the back of the eye and contains tiny blood vessels that nourish the nerves of the eye. Retinopathy occurs when elevated glucose levels and or high blood pressure cause injury to the cells lining the blood vessels. The first visible signs of an abnormality are pinhead red dots next to the blood vessels that come and go called microaneurysms. Further injury can cause leakage of blood and fluid into the surrounding areas. As things progress, the injured blood vessels get blocked and the areas of the retina supplied by these vessels become starved of nutrients. The retina responds by releasing chemicals to promote the growth of new blood vessels. Unfortunately, these new blood vessels are fragile and can bleed easily. Hemorrhages from these new vessels can cause sudden loss of vision. The injured blood vessels can also leak fluid and cause swelling in an area of the eye called the macula. The condition is known as macular edema and can cause the loss of central vision making it difficult to read or drive.
Diabetic eye disease may look very different in different people. In some people, blood vessels may swell and leak fluid. In others, abnormal new blood vessels may grow on the surface of the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye and a healthy retina is necessary for good vision.
Since there are no symptoms or pain in the early stages, a comprehensive dilated eye exam should be performed at least once a year.
The proper care of the eye to prevent disease requires the inclusion of an opthalmologist on your diabetes support team. On an annual basis, the opthalmologist can perform a battery of tests to screen for diabetic eye disease.