Diabetes is a condition growing more and more common in America in which the body becomes resistant to the insulin hormone. This stops sugar, or glucose, from exiting the blood stream and entering into cells. Most often, you hear individuals talk about high blood sugar or hyperglycemia. This condition of having too much sugar in your blood, when happening over many years, can lead to other serious complications. One of these complications is an eye-related disease known as diabetic retinopathy. But what is it? And can diabetic retinopathy be reversed?
What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?
When a person has high blood sugar for an extended period of time, the walls of the small blood vessels throughout the body become thicker. This makes it more difficult for oxygen and important nutrients to move from the blood to the cells which rely on these nutrients and oxygen for survival. One area that is greatly affected by this is the retina, located in the back of the eye.
Poor circulation in these tiny blood vessels can lead to leaking as well. When blood spills from them, it becomes stuck in the retina, decreasing its ability to translate light waves into sight.
As vessels become damaged due to diabetes, the overall condition of the retina decreases drastically. Leaked blood blocks the retina while decreased nutrients and oxygen cause its tissues to die. The end result: decreasing vision until the individual eventually loses all sight.
How Does Diabetic Retinopathy Progress?
In most cases, a diabetic patient does not just wake up with diabetic retinopathy and blindness in one or both eyes. Rather, the disease typically progresses through a series of four stages. It is estimated that, after 20 years of having diabetes, most people will have some signs of mild diabetic retinopathy. Generally, this isn’t threatening to sight yet, but has the potential to worsen and then impact sight. Below are the four typical stages of diabetic retinopathy according to the National Eye Institute:
- Mild non-proliferative retinopathy: This stage involves small areas of swelling in the retina’s blood vessels called microaneurysms.
- Moderate non-proliferative retinopathy: As the disease progresses, an eye doctor may now be able to see visible swelling and distortion of the retinal blood vessels. They may also lose their ability to transport oxygen and nutrients at this stage.
- Severe non-proliferative retinopathy: This stage sees worsening of vessel blockages, depriving parts of the retina of blood. New blood vessels may also grow, blocking areas of the retina.
- Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR): Finally, these newly growing blood vessels proliferate inside of the retina, leading to leakage, vision loss, and scar tissue that can lead to retinal detachment and blindness.
Can Diabetic Retinopathy Be Cured?
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for diabetic retinopathy. The damage caused by blood vessel growth, leakage, and oxygen deprivation is permanent. However, there are some treatments that can help prevent further damage or slow the progression of symptoms. Conversely, diabetic retinopathy is not a completely reversible condition with current treatments.
What Treatments Help Stop Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is mainly treated in two ways: injections and laser surgery. The first way, injections, involves putting a medication such as a corticosteroid directly into the eye. Newer injections that block a protein known as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) which causes new blood vessel growth can also be used. Surgically, doctors can use lasers to burn parts of the retina. By effectively killing these areas, the limited blood supply available can go to the remaining live tissue, helping preserve vision.
Does A Good Diet Help Reverse Diabetic Retinopathy?
For diabetes in general, the importance of a proper diet cannot be understated. In fact, some Type-2 diabetics can successfully manage their symptoms without medication if following the right combination of diet and exercise. Unfortunately, conventional knowledge does not suggest that dieting can reverse the condition. Some older studies like this one, suggest that it is possible in early stages. Though the research is conflicting, anyone with diabetes should be taking steps to eat a healthy, balanced diet. If you don’t already have diabetic retinopathy, a good diet can help prevent it.
Can You Prevent Diabetic Retinopathy?
According to the National Eye Institute, people with diabetes can reduce their risk of blindness related to diabetic retinopathy by 95% through early detection and treatment. Since the disease often is not associated with symptoms early on, it is important for diabetics to have a comprehensive eye exam at least once a year. Those who have early stages of diabetic retinopathy should have an exam more often. Women who have diabetes and become pregnant should have one as soon as possible.
Other studies, such as the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCTT) have shown that managing diabetes itself is a great first step. By managing high blood sugar and keeping it at a normal level, you are much less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy. Controlling other conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol has also been shown to help prevent the disease.
Prevention Is Key
While diabetic retinopathy is not reversible, it is a highly preventable disease. By staying up to date with eye exams and by controlling your blood sugar, you may be able to avoid or slow the disease altogether. Although treatments are available, preventing the disease is ideal. If you already have been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, then early treatment ensures you have the best odds of retaining most of your vision.