Diabetic eye problems - the facts you need to know

The most serious complication of diabetes, as far as your eyes are concerned, is a condition called diabetic retinopathy. Read on to find out more.

Diabetes affects more and more people in the UK every year - about three million today compared with 1.8 million less than a decade ago. About 90% of people with diabetes have type 2, which usually develops later in life than type 1 and can often be treated (at least in the early years) with diet and tablets rather than insulin. On the plus side, improvements in medical treatments mean many more people with diabetes are surviving into old age. On the down side, having diabetes for a long time increases the risk of complications, particularly to your eyes, kidneys and nerves. Even though type 2 diabetes doesn't need daily injections (at least not for many years if at all), it's still a serious condition with serious complications. Fortunately, with some forward thinking, adjustments to your life and a little help from your friendly diabetes team, you can keep your eyes healthy for years to come.

Diabetes - why worry about your eyes?

The most serious complication of diabetes, as far as your eyes are concerned, is a condition called diabetic retinopathy. The back of your eye is lined by a layer of tissue called your retina. This is covered in tiny cells called rods and cones, which convert light into electrical signals. These are passed along your optic ('seeing') nerve to your brain, which interprets them. Like all cells in the body, the retina needs a blood supply to get the oxygen its cells need to function. The delicate network of blood vessels supplying the eye can be damaged in diabetes - particularly by high blood sugar. This makes the blood vessels leaky and liable to bleeding. In more severe cases, blood vessels become blocked off and new blood vessels grow. These can grow in the wrong place and are weak and liable to bleeding, which can cause scarring to the retina or even complete loss of vision.

How can I help myself?

This is one case where prevention is absolutely better than cure. By keeping your blood sugar well controlled, you can hugely reduce the risk of damage to your eyes. Keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol well controlled will also reduce your risks. You're likely to need to take tablets (unless you have type 1 diabetes, in which case you'll definitely need to take insulin for your blood sugar) to help with all of these, but lifestyle changes play a major part. Eating a healthy balanced diet, low in saturated (animal) fat and high in vegetables, some fruit and fibre, will help keep your cholesterol and your weight under control, as well as improving your blood sugar. Regular exercise will help all of these and yet again, stopping smoking will protect you from complications.

Screening for health!

Everyone needs regular eye checks, but in diabetes you should also be having a check called diabetic retinopathy screening, which involves using drops to dilate your pupils and take photos of your retina. The UK is one of the only countries in the world to offer a national screening service to everyone with diabetes - make sure you take advantage of it! If you don't get invited every year, talk to your GP about a referral.

What's the treatment?

Eye screening is key because it picks up progressive changes in your eyes which can be treated before they cause catastrophic damage. If you develop early retinopathy, you'll be encouraged to keep working on your blood glucose control and monitored more regularly. Later, laser surgery (done under local anaesthetic as a day patient) can prevent problems progressing but can't restore vision you've lost

Diabetes and your eyes - there's more!

If you have diabetes, you're also more likely to get cataracts (clouding of the lens) and glaucoma (raised pressure inside the eyeball) - both treatable as long as you have regular eye checks and take treatment as advised.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.