With the large number of very serious complications related to diabetes, it can be easy to overlook some of the less outwardly obvious ones while focusing on those that are easier to detect externally. Regardless of where they transpire in the body, complications from diabetes are caused by damage to blood vessels. Unfortunately, this same type of blood vessel damage can occur in your eyes, potentially causing deterioration of your vision and eventually blindness.
Awareness is Key
This deterioration is called diabetic retinopathy1, and it is important that you’re familiar with its symptoms, as you may be the first to recognize their presence, especially if you don’t visit your eye doctor regularly. Detection of these symptoms can alert you to a worsening condition that may otherwise go unnoticed for a period of time. In order to best handle this condition, it is essential that you see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible to receive a full examination and to get a professional diagnosis of the progression of your retinopathy.
In order to best help you be aware of the symptoms for which you should be vigilant, we should first ensure that you understand what retinopathy is and how it occurs. This will allow for less of a chance that you misunderstand the symptoms we explain and/or that you mistake those symptoms for something else if and when they occur.
How And Why Your Vision May Deteriorate
Diabetes can cause the blood vessels in your retinas, which are located at the back of your eye, to swell and leak. There is also the potential for those blood vessels to close, restricting normal and necessary blood flow. Alternatively, it can cause the abnormal growth of new blood vessels on the retina; this is known as neovascularization2. Unfortunately, any or all of these conditions can compromise your eyesight.
There are essentially two major stages of diabetic retinopathy. In the earlier stage (known as non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, or NPDR), the leakage of tiny blood vessels on the retina cause an area at the back of your eye called the macula to swell, obscuring your vision. Your vision can also be affected when diabetes prohibits the proper amount of blood from reaching your macula. Tiny particles can also form in your retina. All of these conditions will cause your vision to become blurry at this stage.
The later stage of diabetic retinopathy (proliferative diabetic retinopathy, or PDR) is more advanced, and is the result of new, abnormal blood vessels growing on your retina. These new blood vessels are fragile and will bleed inside your eye. It is this blood that then blocks your vision. A small amount of blood may first appear as “floaters” in your eye, but can eventually progress until they block your vision completely. These new, unstable blood vessels can also result in scar tissue that negatively affects your retina and macula.
What are the Symptoms?
Understanding what may be happening inside your eye can help you be more aware of the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, which can signal you to see your eye doctor sooner. Now that we know how the condition progresses, let’s take a look at some of the common symptoms that you may experience.
1. You may see an increased number of floaters. Everyone gets something in their eye every now and then that floats across their field of vision. However, it happens so infrequently that we often disregard it. In the case of diabetic retinopathy, these floaters occur often enough and substantially enough that they become disruptive to us.
2. Your vision may be blurred. As we discussed above, when abnormal blood flow causes irregularities in the blood vessels in the back of your eye, it will cause your vision to be blurred. This may be an early sign that your diabetes has begun to affect your vision.
3. Your vision may be blurry for a period and then become clear. This can be the noticeable result of the irregular blood flow in the back of your eye or of the slight bleeding of broken blood vessels on your retina.
4. Seeing blank or dark areas in your field of vision. This is another typical indication of an increased amount of blood obscuring the light traveling to the back of your eye. As the amount of blood increases, the dark or blank areas can expand until your entire field of vision is lost.
5. Experiencing poor night vision. There are a number of conditions varying significantly in seriousness that can cause poor night vision. Some of these conditions, while unfortunate, are not necessarily a cause for major concern. However, if you are diabetic and you notice a decreased quality in your night vision, it is worth informing your eye doctor.
6. A decrease in the vibrancy of color. If the colors in your vision begin to seem washed out or faded, that can be symptom of the onset of diabetic retinopathy. While this may sound like a relatively subtle change, this is not a normal situation, so if you notice it, it is best to have it checked out.
Diabetic retinopathy generally goes unnoticed until it begins to affect a person’s vision3. However, knowing what to expect can increase your vigilance and help you detect symptoms earlier. As a person living with diabetes, it is best to be aware of these symptoms and to visit an ophthalmologist at the earliest indication of such signs.