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Diabetic Eye Disease

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What is Diabetic Eye Disease?

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye conditions that affect people with diabetes: diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and cataracts. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in Canadians under the age of 65.   

Diabetic eye disease is primarily the result of chronically high blood sugar levels. It is important to note that even if you have diabetes, it does not mean you are guaranteed to develop one of these diseases. As well, people without diabetes can develop any type of the 3 following eye conditions.

The Diabetic Eye Diseases

Diabetic Retinopathy

This particular type of retinopathy is the most common eye disease that diabetics are at risk for. Diabetic retinopathy directly affects the blood vessels of your retina (the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of your eye).

When diabetes isn’t managed properly, chronically high blood sugar levels will eventually cause damage to the small blood vessels of the retina.

These damaged blood vessels have the potential to leak fluid or blood into your eye. This leakage will in turn cause the retinal tissue to swell, leading to distorted vision.

If left untreated, patients with diabetic retinopathy can expect to suffer from complete vision loss.

The 4 Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy

  1. Mild Nonproliferative Retinopathy –  In the initial stages, microaneurysms occur in the tiny blood vessels of the retina. They begin to swell, forming pockets of fluid and blood. These microaneurysms may leak fluid into the retina.
  2. Moderate Nonproliferative Retinopathy – The blood vessels that directly sustain the retina may swell and become disfigured. This may lead to the vessels losing their ability to transport blood to the retina.
  3. Severe Nonproliferative Retinopathy – As nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy progresses into its final and severe stage, you will experience vision loss.
  4. Proliferative Retinopathy (PDR) – This advanced stage sees severe changes to one’s vision. As fragile, blood vessels begin to form and grow inside the surface of the retina, leakages begin to occur.

    As blood and other fluids leak into the vitreous (interior substance of your eye), vision begins to cloud. Retinal scarring can be a direct result of the newly formed weak blood vessels. If this happens, there is a risk of the retina being pulled on and eventually detaching, ultimately leading to a complete loss of vision. People with PDR also have a strong risk of developing neovascular glaucoma, a potentially permanently blinding disease.

    If retinal tears/detachment is detected and treated early on, vision loss can likely be prevented. We recommend regular eye exams, once per year, if you have diabetes.


As blood and other fluids leak into the vitreous (interior substance of your eye), vision begins to cloud. Retinal scarring can be a direct result of the newly formed weak blood vessels. If this happens, there is a risk of the retina being pulled on and eventually detaching, ultimately leading to a complete loss of vision.

If retinal tears/detachment is detected and treated early on, vision loss can likely be prevented. We recommend regular eye exams, once per year, if you have diabetes.

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy progresses slowly and quietly, often going undetected until your vision is already damaged.

Symptoms include:

  • Floaters in your field of vision
  • Blurry vision
  • Dark or empty spot in the center of your field of vision
  • Increased difficulty with night time vision

Treating Diabetic Retinopathy

Treatment will depend on the type and stage of your diabetic retinopathy. They include:

  • Medication – Corticosteroids
  • Laser Treatments – Focal/grid macular laser surgery, scatter laser surgery (panretinal laser surgery or panretinal photocoagulation)
  • Vitrectomy – Surgical removal of the excess blood in the eye

Cataracts

A cataract is the clouding of the natural lens in your eye. If you have diabetes you are at risk of developing cataracts much earlier in life, with a faster rate of progression.

Glaucoma

If you are an adult with diabetes, you have double the risk of developing glaucoma. Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can cause complete vision loss as a result of damage to the optic nerve.

Early Detection Can Reduce Risk of Complete Vision Loss by 95%

If you have diabetes, or a health condition with an increased risk for eye disease, we recommend having a comprehensive eye exam every year.

The earlier our Optometrist is able to detect potential eye conditions, the more likely they are able to prevent you from experiencing complete vision loss. Yearly eye exams will provide us the opportunity to monitor your overall eye health and catch the smallest of changes, before there is severe damage to your vision.