Both types of Diabetes mellitus are often associated with other serious health concerns.
These comorbid conditions can take the form of nerve damage, wounds that won’t heal, and organ failure, just to name a few. They’re also present more often than not — a recent study found that of type II diabetic adults, 97.5% have one or more comorbid disease and 88.5% had two or more.
One comorbid condition that fewer people are familiar with is diabetic eye damage, known as retinopathy. Left untreated, this condition can progress into partial or total blindness.
Can diabetic retinopathy be reversed, and how does it affect your vision and eye health long-term? If you’re wondering if there’s hope for your diabetic vision loss, read on for the answers to those questions and more.
What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?
To understand diabetic retinopathy, you first need a grasp of how diabetes affects your body as a whole.
Both type I and type II diabetes mellitus result in your body being unable to process glucose the right way. While we’re all familiar with the results of low blood sugar (confusion, dizziness, passing out, etc.), high blood sugar causes problems too. Having too much glucose in your bloodstream for a long amount of time damages your muscles, tissues, and blood vessels.
Some of the smallest and most delicate blood vessels in your body are in charge of supplying the backs of your eyes with oxygen and nutrients. When those blood vessels are damaged, the cells around them can start to die.
The back of your eye is called the retina, and it’s in charge of sending “sight messages” to your brain. When light enters your eye, it bounces off the retina and special light-sensitive cells relay that information through the optic nerve. If those cells start to die off, your retina can’t send a clear image to your brain anymore, and this results in vision loss.
You might have diabetic retinopathy for a while before you start to notice symptoms. Once they begin, though, they can progress from mild to total blindness over time.
The symptoms of retinopathy often start with floaters, strings, dark spots, or blurriness in your vision. After a while, you may start to notice that you see dark or empty areas or that colors begin to fade. To make matters more confusing, your symptoms may fluctuate in severity.
As the condition progresses, the symptoms will get worse. If you’re dealing with blurriness and trouble focusing, your glasses may not help anymore. You may even notice the dark spots growing until they cover most or all of your sight.
Because diabetes affects your body as a whole, most people will notice similar symptoms in both of their eyes at the same time. If left untreated, retinopathy can cause additional complications. These include glaucoma, hemorrhage, and retinal detachment.
Types of Retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy can take several different forms. Not everyone will experience it in the same way, and the type you have may change as the disease progresses.
Background retinopathy is the earliest stage of the disease. In this type, the blood vessels in your retina develop small swollen spots called “blebs”. In a retinal scan, they look like little dots and can sometimes have yellow deposits of blood proteins nearby.
Even though it’s minimal, background retinopathy should be watched closely by an Ophthalmologist to make sure it doesn’t get worse.
In the center of the retina is a very important area called the macula. This part of the eye is responsible for the middle part of our field of view — it lets us see the things that are right in front of us. When background retinopathy moves from the edges of your vision into the macula, it’s called maculopathy.
You might have maculopathy if you start having problems reading, recognizing people right in front of you, or notice dark spots right in the middle of your vision.
Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy
As retinopathy becomes more severe, your body may try to compensate by growing new blood vessels. They’re often abnormal, weak, and can cause more harm than good.
If these blood vessels swell and rupture, they will bleed directly into your eye. This hemorrhage can also cause retinal detachment and blindness. Thankfully, early detection and treatment can keep even proliferative retinopathy from taking all your sight.
Who Is at Risk?
Anyone who has type I or II diabetes is at risk of diabetic retinopathy.
However, if you’ve had diabetes for a long time or don’t manage and control your blood sugar well, you’re more likely to experience complications. Pregnancy, tobacco use, and high blood pressure or cholesterol also increase your risk.
Can Diabetic Retinopathy Be Reversed?
Modern eye surgery has come a long way in the past few decades. While there are advanced treatments available for retinopathy today, there still isn’t a cure. The treatments focus on slowing or stopping the progression of the disease to preserve the vision you have left.
The ability of your eye surgeon to treat retinopathy symptoms relies on two things: early detection and early intervention. If you wait until your symptoms are severe to get your eyes examined, there may not be much they can do to help. If you get regular check-ups and visit any time there’s a significant change in your vision, though, they may be able to stop your symptoms from getting worse.
Diabetic Retinopathy Treatments
The primary treatment for retinopathy is managing your blood sugar levels. Aside from that, there are things your Ophthalmologist can do to slow or stop your vision loss. Two of the most common treatments are intravitreal injections and laser surgery.
The inside of the eye is filled with a gel-like fluid known as the vitreous humor. It fills up the empty space between the lens at the front of your eye and the retina at the back.
To deliver medication straight to your retina, Ophthalmologists will sometimes use a needle to inject it into the vitreous humor. This is known as an intravitreal injection.
While the prospect of getting a shot in your eye is scary, your doctors will numb the area ahead of time. Often, patients are also given a sedative to help them stay calm during the procedure.
When diabetic retinopathy gets to be severe, new blood vessels that grow can be weak and prone to bursting. To prevent that, eye surgeons can use laser surgery to stop their growth and stabilize disease progression. The powerful light beam reaches all the way to the back of your retina, meaning this surgery doesn’t require any incisions.
Both intravitreal injections and laser surgery are often reserved for more advanced cases of the disease. If there’s any scarring or bleeding in your eye, another surgical procedure called a vitrectomy may be necessary as well.
Prevention Is Still the Best Cure
Because there is no cure for diabetes or diabetic retinopathy, the best way to treat these conditions is to stay on top of your health. Taking care of yourself and following your doctor’s instructions can help you prevent comorbid conditions from developing.
High blood glucose, hypertension, and high ketone levels can increase your risk of retinopathy. As such, managing them is the first step in prevention.
Even though it’s difficult, eating a healthy diet and exercising will go a long way toward keeping your eyes healthy in the long run. Along with diet and exercise, monitoring your blood sugar levels and taking your medication as prescribed can help as well.
Finally, the importance of frequent eye exams can’t be stressed enough.
If you have diabetes, seeing an eye doctor every few months can help you stop retinopathy in its tracks. You should also get a thorough exam with dilation every year. Your doctor may then be able to notice and treat the damage before you experience any symptoms.
Are You Looking for Retinopathy Treatment?
Can diabetic retinopathy be reversed? No, but it doesn’t have to lead to blindness, either. If you catch it early enough, you can prevent it from taking your vision.
That’s why it’s vital to have regular visits with an Ophthalmologist or Optometrist who’s familiar with diabetes and retina treatment. The team at Drs. Campbell, Cunningham, Taylor & Haun have been treating patients in the Knoxville area for over 60 years. Our retina specialists would love to help you manage your eye health and preserve your sight for years to come.
It’s clear to see that your vision should be a priority. Put our experience to work for you and contact us to schedule an appointment today.