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Diabetic Retinopathy: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Ava Lawson | April 15th, 2013

Diabetes and EyesightDiabetes is the leading cause of blindness in American adults between the ages of 20 to 74. If you have Type 2 diabetes and eyesight problems such as blurred vision, this may be an early symptom of diabetic retinopathy. The condition generally affects both eyes and is caused by damage to the delicate blood vessels in the retina. These microvascular complications are attributed to high blood sugar levels, which can also cause kidney and heart disease, and lead to stroke. The risks of diabetic retinopathy increase with the progressive duration of uncontrolled blood glucose levels and the disease can develop in individuals with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.

The best approach to preventing eyesight complications resulting from diabetes is to manage your blood sugar levels and weight with a low glycemic diabetic diet.  It’s also important to have regular eye examinations, at least once every 12 months, to detect early signs of damage to the retina.

With those goals in mind, individuals who are at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, or who already have pre diabetes, are encouraged to consult a health care professional about beginning a diabetic diet for weight loss. “When patients lose 5-10 percent of their body weight, it’s a given that they will reduce their blood sugar significantly, and lower their risks for health problems such as diabetic retinopathy,” explains Dr. Michael Kaplan, founder of The Center for Medical Weight Loss.

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy may present few early symptoms, but if left untreated, the condition can progress to total vision loss. Warning signs to be aware of include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Fluctuating vision
  • Dark or empty areas in your vision
  • Vision loss
  • Difficulty with color perception
  • Floaters (dark spots or strings moving about in your vision)

Diabetic retinopathy prognosis

Depending on when the condition is detected, a patient may be diagnosed with either nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR), also called early diabetic retinopathy, or the advanced form known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). The latter is more severe and may result in glaucoma, optic nerve damage and complete retinal detachment. Complications of both types include macular edema, vitreous hemorrhage, glaucoma, and vision loss.

The good news is that in cases of early diabetic retinopathy, by simply managing blood sugar levels, patients can normally stop the progression and damage. However, those who missed symptoms of diabetes and eyesight problems and have been diagnosed with proliferative diabetic retinopathy will likely require prompt surgical intervention. Depending on the damage to the retina, treatment options for advanced diabetic retinopathy may be:

  • Scattered laser treatment: Also known as panretinal photocoagulation, it is used to shrink the abnormal blood vessels. This often requires more than one session, in which the areas of the retina away from the macula are treated with scattered laser burns.
  • Vitrectomy: A surgery where the vitreous and accompanying blood vessels and scar tissue that’s pulling on the retina is removed. The operation is performed under general anesthesia and the vitreous is replaced with a gas bubble or sterile saline solution.
  • Focal laser treatment: A focal laser is used to slow or stop the leakage of blood and fluid into the eye. Typically performed in one session.

While there is no cure for diabetic retinopathy, laser treatments and surgery may help slow the progression and help alleviate symptoms. Researchers are presently investigating new medications that may help prevent abnormal blood vessels caused by the condition from developing in the eye.

While other risk factors for diabetic retinopathy include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pregnancy and tobacco use, the primary cause is high blood sugar levels for a prolonged period of time.

When to consult a physician for a diabetic diet program

A diabetic diet program can help patients lose weight, moderate blood sugar levels, and even reverse diabetes symptoms such as vision problems. The Center for Medical Weight Loss, which operates in 450 locations throughout the country, is dedicated to helping clients achieve a healthy weight through personalized counseling combined with nutritious meal plans and a sound exercise regimen.  Special introductory offers are available in select locations for first-time customers. Find a Center in your neighborhood by entering your zip code in the box at top right.