Diabetes-related eye problems are the most common cause of blindness in people of working age in the UK.
Diabetes affects the eye in a number of ways. The most damaging condition occurs when the fine network of blood vessels in the retina – the light-sensitive inner lining of the back of the eye – leak fluid. This is known as diabetic retinopathy. Cataracts also develop earlier and progress more rapidly in people with diabetes. Untreated diabetes may also cause frequent or noticeable changes to your eyesight.
Serious eye problems are less likely to develop if diabetes is well controlled or in its early stages. Most sight loss caused by diabetic eye disease can be prevented if detected early and treated. This is why having regularly eye tests is so important. Yearly eye exams are an essential part of diabetes care.
How Your Optometrist Can Help
Optometrists have an important role to play in detecting diabetic retinopathy and in monitoring the eyes of diabetic patients once diagnosed. Checking the appearance of the retina with an ophthalmoscope (a special torch for looking into the eyes) or a Volk lens (a lens held in front of the eye whilst the optometrist looks through their microscope to the back of the eye) are the most common tests for diabetic eye problems. Photographs of the retina are also recommended to detect and monitor any abnormalities.
If diabetes is suspected, your optometrist will refer you to a GP or hospital for medical advice. If diabetes is diagnosed, your eyes will need to be examined regularly for signs of eye problems. You may be referred to a hospital eye clinic or be referred back to your optometrist for regular monitoring. Even though your vision may be good, changes can be taking place to your retina that need treatment.
However, it’s important to remember that if your vision is getting worse, this does not necessarily mean you have diabetic retinopathy. It may simply be a problem that can be corrected by glasses.
Treatment for Diabetic Eye Problems
Most sight-threatening diabetic problems can be prevented by laser treatment if carried out early enough. It is important to understand, however, that laser treatment aims to save the sight you have – not to make it better. The laser – a beam of high intensity light – can be focused with extreme precision to seal the blood vessels that are leaking fluid into the retina. If new blood vessels grow, more extensive laser treatment may be needed.