Why is it important to know how diabetes affects the eyes?
If you are among the 10 million people in the United States who have
diabetes - or if someone close to you has this disease - you should
know that diabetes can affect the eyes and cause visual impairment.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent or lessen the eye damage
caused by diabetes. That is why it is so important for people with
this disease to have a professional eye examination as soon as their
diabetes is diagnosed, and at least once a year thereafter.
Regular eye examinations are especially important for people who
have had diabetes 5 years or longer, for those who have difficulty
controlling the level of sugar in their blood, and for diabetic women
who are pregnant.
All of these people are at increased risk for diabetes-associated
How many diabetics are affected?
Approximately 40 percent of all people with diabetes have at least
mild signs of diabetic retinopathy. About 3 percent have suffered
severe visual loss because of this disease.
In general, the longer one has had diabetes, the greater one's
chances of developing diabetic retinopathy.
What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?
As already indicated, diabetic retinopathy generally causes no
symptoms in its earliest stages. For the person who develops macular
edema, blurring of vision may provide a clue that something is wrong.
But proliferative retinopathy can progress a long way without any
warning signs. That is why a person with diabetes should make regular
visits to an eye specialist, so any eye problems can be detected and
treated if necessary.
How is diabetic retinopathy treated?
Recently, scientists have found that laser treatment can prevent
visual loss in many people with diabetic macular edema. In this
treatment, called photocoagulation, powerful beams of light from a
laser are aimed at leaking retinal blood vessels in the macula.
The goal of treatment is to seal the vessels and prevent further
leakage. In many patients, this treatment halts the decline in vision
or even reverses it.
Research also has shown that laser photocoagulation can dramatically
reduce the risk of blindness in people who have proliferative
For these patients, the laser is used in a different way: It is not
directed at the macula but is aimed at hundreds of spots in other
parts of the retina.
The purpose of the treatment is to destroy diseased tissue and stop
the retinopathy from getting worse. In fact, the treatment can reduce
the risk of severe visual loss by 60 percent.
The studies which proved the value of laser treatment for people
with diabetic retinopathy were supported by the National Eye
Institute. It is part of the National Institutes of Health, a
component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What research is being done on diabetic retinopathy?
The National Eye Institute is supporting a nationwide study to
determine whether photocoagulation - used alone or in combination with
aspirin - can benefit people who are still in the early stages of
Almost 4,000 patients are enrolled in this 5-year clinical trial. It
already has proven the value of photocoagulation for macular edema
(see "How is diabetic retinopathy treated?"), and is
expected to yield further valuable findings in the future.
Another clinical trial sponsored by the Institute and Pfizer, Inc.,
is evaluating a new drug called sorbinil to see if it can prevent eye
and nerve damage in people with diabetes.
In addition to these clinical trials, the Institute is supporting an
extensive program of research on the causes, detection, and treatment
of diabetic retinopathy.
Who can refer you to an eye care specialist?
If you know you have diabetes, you are probably under the care of a
physician who can refer you to an eye doctor for regular examinations and
treatment, if needed.
You may also request the name of an appropriate eye
doctor from eye care centers affiliated with academic institutions, from a
hospital, or from a diabetes clinic at a medical center.
What help is available to the person who has already lost vision from
There are many useful devices that can help a partially sighted person
to make the most of his or her remaining vision. Called low vision aids,
these devices have special lenses or electronic systems that produce
enlarged images of nearby objects.
The Badger Association of the Blind
(exit DHS) has a low vision therapist on
staff that can help identify and train individuals with the low vision
Additionally, equipment adapted with voice or tactual output can be
purchased at the Badger Association's "OutLook shop." For more
information, call 414-258-9200.
Last Revised: December 13, 2010