More than one million Australians have diabetes.  Many people who have diabetes are unaware they have it.  Your optometrist may be able to detect signs of previously undiagnosed diabetes.

The onset of diabetic eye disease is often subtle.  About 15 years after the onset of diabetes, up to 80 per cent of people having the condition exhibit some signs of diabetic eye disease.

Diabetes can cause changes to the blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye.  These changes may lead to blood leakage and the growth of new unstable blood vessels.  Some small blood vessels can close, reducing the amount of blood reaching the retinal tissues.  The lack of oxygen as a result of this can cause significant disruption to vision.

Early diagnosis and treatment is essential to help prevent profound loss of vision.

Diabetic Retinopathy

To detect diabetic retinopathy, your optometrist will use an instrument called an ophthalmoscope to view the retina at the back of the eye and check for changes.  The interior of the eyes may also be photographed to provide more information.

The risk of developing retinopathy increases with the length of time since the condition first developed.  This risk is also increased by poor control of blood sugar levels.

There are two types of diabetic retinopathy:

Background retinopathy rarely causes vision loss and does generally not require treatment.  Occasionally, retinal swelling may cause vision to be hazy and distorted.  If vision is affected, your optometrist can confirm the cause and refer you for appropriate treatment.

Proliferative retinopathy is more serious and requires prompt treatment to prevent serious vision loss.  Your optometrist can detect and recognise early signs of this condition.  Once proliferative retinopathy has been diagnosed, your optometrist will refer you to an ophthalmologist for further assessment and probable laser treatment.  Treatment has a greater chance of success if it is commenced very early.

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

Early stages of diabetic retinopathy may cause a blur in central or peripheral vision, or there may be no symptoms.

As diabetic retinopathy progresses, you may notice hazy vision, blind spots or floaters.  These symptoms are associated with blood leaking from abnormal new vessels, preventing light from reaching the retina.

In advanced stages, scar tissue may form in association with new blood vessel growth causing additional distortion and blur.  This increases the risk of retinal detachment and serious loss of sight.

Preventing and managing diabetic retinopathy

Actions to help prevent diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Taking prescribed medication as instructed
  • Not smoking
  • Adhering to a low GI diet
  • Exercising regularly

It is advisable for all people with diabetes to have an annual eye examination.  People who have been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy will require more frequent eye examinations as recommended by their eye care practitioner.

Associated vision conditions

  • Cataracts Cataracts are more likely to occur in people who have diabetes at an earlier age than for people who have no diabetes.  Cataracts are opacities that occur in the normally clear lens inside the eye.
  • Glaucoma Glaucoma is more common in people who have diabetes.  Glaucoma occurs when optic nerve fibres are damaged due to a build up of fluid and a resultant build up of pressure inside the eye. Untreated glaucoma can lead to loss of sight.
  • Double vision Temporary double vision may occur in people with diabetes.  It results from changes in the blood vessels supplying the nerves that control the muscles surrounding the eyes. Diabetes is not the only cause of double vision.

Treatment of Diabetic Retinopathy

To reduce the progression of diabetic retinopathy and the risk of vision loss, laser or other surgical treatment may be used.  This treatment is done by an eye specialist or ophthalmologist. Your optometrist can explain the types of treatment available and refer you to an ophthalmologist as required.

Optical aids such as magnifying glasses or telescopic lenses may be prescribed by your optometrist where vision loss has occurred due to diabetes

Optometric examination

Your optometrist will check many factors that may be affected by diabetes.  Optometrists can help address vision problems associated with diabetes and provide information about the management of diabetic vision issues.

Regular visits to your optometrist are essential to enable early detection and treatment or referral.

Visit, call or make an appointment on-line with one of our centres if you are concerned about the health of your eyes or would like to book an appointment for an eye examination.