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Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetes is often termed a silent killer, but silent complications from the disease can be devastating.

Diabetic retinopathy is an ocular disease that affects half of the 14 million Americans with diabetes. It is the leading cause of blindness in the United States. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends annual eye examinations for all diabetics; however, only about half of the diabetics in Kentucky comply with this recommendation.

Regular eye exams critical

“Many patients mistakenly believe that they should see their eye doctor only after they experience symptoms,” says Andrew Pearson, M.D., professor and chair, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Kentucky College of Medicine. “There are no early signs of diabetic retinopathy. By the time symptoms are apparent, a great deal of vision may already be lost.”

Pearson stresses that diabetics should have regularly scheduled dilated eye examinations. Type I diabetics who have had diabetes for five years and all Type II diabetics when diagnosed should see their ophthalmologists every year or more often if recommended.

A diabetic eye examination will include some or all of the following:

  • visual acuity testing: tests how well you see
  • dilation: widens the pupil to enhance the doctor’s view of your eye
  • ophthalmoscopy: a test that examines the internal structure of the eye
  • tonometry: a test that measures the fluid pressure within the eye
  • fluorescein angiogram: a test for evaluating blood vessels in the eye

A fluorescein angiogram is especially important in detecting progression of the disease. Diabetes affects blood vessels in the body, and diabetic retinopathy essentially damages blood vessels in the retina, the “seeing” part of the eye, resulting in blurred vision.

Treating diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy cannot be prevented, but its progression can be reduced by maintaining overall good health. Diabetics should maintain a controlled blood sugar level, as well as normal lipid and blood pressure levels. This may take a combination of keeping appointments with doctors, taking medication, and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen.

The disease can be treated with laser or surgery, and some experimental medications, but there is currently no cure. Treatment slows progression, but does not cure the disease. “Quality diabetic care and a healthy lifestyle are extremely important,” says Pearson. “Most of all, regular eye examinations are key in reducing progression of the disease.”

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