Diabetic Retinopathy and Other Diabetic Eye Problems

diabetic eye problems

Diabetes is a metabolic disease where the body is unable to manufacture enough insulin or doesn’t use insulin well, resulting in elevated blood glucose (sugar) levels. Blood glucose is the body’s main source of energy and comes from the food you eat. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas which helps the glucose reach your cells so it can be used as energy. When someone has diabetes, glucose remains in the blood and does enter the cells. Over time, having high levels of glucose in the blood can lead to a number of serious health conditions.

Nearly 30 million Americans have diabetes, and another two million people are diagnosed with the disease each year in the United States. Doctors estimate than a third of people with diabetes don’t even know they have it, and thus, cannot be treated. Diabetes remains the seventh leading cause of death in the nation.

An additional 90 million Americans are classified as prediabetic, meaning their blood sugar levels are elevated, but it’s not yet high enough to be classified as diabetes. It is estimated that nearly three out of four people with prediabetes will eventually develop diabetes unless there are significant lifestyle changes—in particular, loss of excess weight.

A number of common symptoms are associated with diabetes, including:

  • Tingling, aching or lack of feeling in the hands and feet.
  • Bruises and scratches that heal slowly.
  • Persistent thirst or hunger despite a regular intake of food and drink.
  • Excessive tiredness.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Irritability.
  • Frequent urination.
  • Unintended loss of weight.
  • Excessively dry skin.

Diabetes can affect any part of the body. When blood glucose levels remain elevated for long periods of time, that can lead to heart disease, strokes and renal failure. Uncontrolled diabetes can also put people at risk of developing serious, deep-seated foot infections, which sometimes can only be treated by amputation of a toe, foot or leg.

Diabetes can also affect your eyes

Many people don’t realize that diabetes can also impact the health of their eyes and vision. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, people with diabetes are 25 times more likely to lose vision than those who are not diabetic.

One of the general symptoms of diabetes is blurred vision. This is caused by elevated blood sugar and is a sign that the condition is not under control. When blood sugar levels are elevated for a long time, fluids from the body are pulled into the eye’s lens, causing it to swell and creating blurred vision.

In addition to blurry vision, high blood sugar can lead to eye disorders such as diabetic retinopathy (damage to the blood vessels in the back of the eye), diabetic macular edema (accumulation of fluid in the macula—the central portion of the eye), glaucoma (vision loss caused by internal eye pressure build-up), and cataracts (a clouding of the eye’s lens which blocks out light from the eye).

Diabetic retinopathy

Elevated levels of blood sugar can cause the blood vessels in your eyes to thicken and develop leaks. Eventually, this can lead to new blood vessel growth over the retina (the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye). The new blood vessels can break and cause scar tissue to develop, which can pull the retina away from the back of the eye. These changes are called diabetic retinopathy or retinal detachment. Left untreated, this condition can lead to blindness. Nearly 45 percent of people who diagnosed with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy. The more out of control your blood sugar is, the more likely diabetic retinopathy will develop.

Diabetic macular edema

Diabetic retinopathy is also a result of high blood sugar levels weakening the blood vessels in the eyes. When fluid from these blood vessels leak into the macula (the part of the eye responsible for sharp central vision), these leaks cause the macula to swell and thicken, which hinders the functioning ability of the macula. This can cause a loss of central vision and ultimately, can lead to blindness. This condition affects up to one-third of people who have had diabetes for 20 years or more.


Patients suffering from diabetes are at a 40 percent higher risk of developing glaucoma. This disease is caused by damage to or excessive pressure on the optic nerve. Too much pressure can develop when the natural fluids in your eyes do not flow properly. As fluids build up and pressure rises in the eyes, optic nerves are damaged. This condition can be quite serious and even result in blindness. The older you are, the more prone you are to developing glaucoma. There is no cure for glaucoma.


A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye which affects and impairs vision. The clouding causes an image to be blurred because less light can pass through the lens to the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that sends signals to the brain. Cataracts are an age-related disease, often first appearing when people reach their late 40s or 50s. However, people with diabetes often develop cataracts at an earlier age, and are at a 60 percent higher risk of developing cataracts than people without diabetes.


Protecting your eyes

Diabetes-related eye diseases cannot always be prevented, but there are measures you can take to help lower your risk. Some of the most important preventative measures are:

  • Control your diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol levels by eating a balanced diet, regularly exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and other lifestyle changes.
  • Regularly monitor your blood glucose levels.
  • Ask your physician to check your hemoglobin levels.
  • Do not smoke. If you already are a smoker, quit the habit.
  • Don’t ignore sudden changes in vision; see your eye doctor immediately.

One other very important step to take is to have an eye exam performed every year with an ophthalmologist to have your eyes properly assessed and evaluated for any vision problems.

This is important for everyone to do, but especially if you have diabetes.

If a serious condition like diabetic retinopathy is detected, the sooner it is diagnosed, the better. As is true with so many diseases, treatment will be more effective the earlier it is diagnosed. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, 95 percent of people with diabetic retinopathy can avoid substantial vision loss if they are treated in time. Treatment for diabetic retinopathy can include laser surgery, steroid injections, and anti-VEGF injections.  All of these treatments aim to slow down or stop further vision loss and may even, in ideal situations, recover lost vision.

If you have diabetes and have any concerns about your eyes or your vision, please contact our office today to schedule an eye examination with Dr. Ashaf. To book your appointment, please call us at (770) 622-6488.