The Importance of a Diabetic Eye Exam

By Jenny Belken, Optometrist

Did you know diabetes can potentially cause blindness? In fact, diabetes is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in adults between the ages of 20-74 years old, according to the National Eye Institute.

Diabetes is becoming more common. In 1958 only 1% of the population was diabetic. By 2015 that number had risen to 9.5%, not including those diagnosed as pre-diabetic. The American Diabetes Association reports that 1.5 million Americans are newly diagnosed with diabetes each year.

If you are diabetic you have most likely heard that there are three essential doctors that you should frequently visit: your primary care doctor, a podiatrist, and an optometrist (eye doctor). Have you ever wondered why the eye doctor? They are often the first health care provider to examine undiagnosed diabetics and discover changes. Some of these early changes that occur in the eyes from diabetes are frequent glasses changes, early onset cataracts, and bleeding in the small vessels of the retina (diabetic retinopathy).

Frequent increases or changes in your glasses prescription can occur with diabetes due to uncontrolled sugar levels, which causes the lens in your eye to swell and change shape. People with diabetes are also more likely to get cataracts at a younger age. Cataracts cause a “clouding” of the lens inside the eye, which makes vision blurry.

A more severe complication, retinopathy, or bleeding in the small retinal vessels, may occur without causing any symptoms. This bleeding occurs due to the high concentration of sugar causing damage to the walls of the especially small vessels in the eye. As the walls of the vessels are damaged, blood leaks out and compromises the fragile light sensitive cells of the retina. Sometimes the eye will try and grow new vessels to fix the problem (called neovascularization) but this results in more complications such as a severe form of glaucoma.  Diabetic retinopathy accounts for approximately 12% of all new cases of blindness each year and is the leading cause of blindness in adults age 20-74 years old.

Early detection allows for a timely diagnosis and for the appropriate management. According to the American Optometric Association about 20-40% of Type 2 diabetics already have retinopathy at the time of their initial diagnosis of diabetes.

Our goal as eye care providers is to help preserve vision and reduce the risk of vision loss. Annual comprehensive eye examinations are necessary for detecting early changes before diabetic complications become severe enough to threaten vision. Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics are at risk for the diabetic changes in the eye that I have described. Keeping blood sugar levels under control has been shown to dramatically decrease the risk of developing diabetic changes in the eye. The risk of diabetic retinopathy has been shown to decrease by as much as 76% by maintaining normal blood sugar concentrations.

If you have not had your annual diabetic eye examination call the Eye Center at Southwest Health at 608.342.2020 or the Eye Center in Lancaster at 608.723.2020 and schedule an eye exam today! We know how important it is to thoroughly examine your eyes for signs of diabetic changes because preserving your vision is just as important to us as it is to you!

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