Diabetes can damage many parts of the body, including the eyes, but it does not cause vision problems.
With good blood sugar control and frequent eye tests, it is possible to avoid or treat several eye disorders, experts say.
Palm Harbor, Florida, Pilates studio owner Patricia Welter wishes she had learned more about preventing diabetes-related eye problems earlier. She developed type 1 diabetes at 14 and lost an eye in her 40s.
Welter said, “I was always scared of death from eye problems and blindness from diabetes.” Both her uncle and her mom had type 1 diabetes and had vision problems from the disorder. But before a number of advances were made in the treatment of diabetes and diabetic eye disorder, Welter was diagnosed in the 1970s.
“I saw symptoms looking back, began to get fuzzy vision and saw little dots. I wouldn’t have lost the eye if I had been diagnosed and treated early,” she said.
In her 40s, Welter started experiencing bleeding in her retina (the part of the eye that senses light and sends visual messages to the brain). She saw an eye specialist and underwent laser surgery on both eyes. And one day she saw flashes in her left eye. Retinal detachment was diagnosed by physicians. In order to try to save the eye, she underwent three operations but had a stroke during the third surgery to lost her left eye.
“I felt sorry for myself during the first few months,” she said. But her boyfriend (her husband now) was encouraging her to get involved again, to go back to Pilates. He challenged her to finish a half marathon as well, which they did together.
Welter said she didn’t let the loss of her eye in any way deter her. “Now that’s part of my being,” she added.
She also developed an early cataract, in addition to having diabetic retinopathy — another concern for people with diabetes. In the eyes, cataracts cause cloudy lenses. Welter had surgery to repair the cataract and said it modified her world because it gave her so much of her vision back into her remaining eye.
Her advice to those with diabetes is, “Get a team of individuals around you to help control your diabetes — family, friends, coworkers, endocrinologist, diabetes instructor, registered dietician, and an eye doctor. You can treat it if you catch eye problems early.”
The need for early treatment is also emphasized by Tracey Brown, CEO of the American Diabetes Association ( ADA).
“One-third of people with diabetes have eye-related problems, and eye care doesn’t get about as much coverage as it should,” Brown said. “Eyecare must be a priority, particularly during this difficult period, because you don’t really have to have the eye problems of diabetes if you can do the things you need.”
Brown recently headed an advisory group, including experts from the ADA, VSP Vision Care, and Regeneron, for the ADA Focus on Diabetes: Look Closer at Eye Health initiative.
According to the U.S. National Eye Institute (NEI), there are four types of eye disease that are more common in people with diabetes:
- Diabetic retinopathy
- Diabetic macular edema
In people who have elevated blood sugar levels, these disorders are more prevalent, so controlling diabetes well will help prevent eye disease, the NEI said.
There are a variety of eye disease signs that should cause an eye doctor’s visit. This include:
- Vision Blurred or Wavy
- Vision that varies regularly, probably from day to day,
- Areas that have no vision
- Dark areas in vision
- Difficulty seeing colors
- Seeing spots or dark strings (floaters)
- Light flashes
Even without symptoms, the ADA’s eye initiative experts recommend regular dilated eye exams.
“Over 100 million people with diabetes or prediabetes need an annual eye test to avoid blindness,” said VSP Vision Treatment president Kate Renwick-Espinosa.
Newer treatments can cure diabetic eye disease, and laser and surgery can reduce vision loss in diabetics.
Welter still sees her eye doctor and a retinal specialist regularly. Her doctors say they would have been able to save her eye if Welter’s issues had begun today.
“Control is the key to your eye health. Maintain blood sugar control by exercising, even in a chair. Contact your eye doctor immediately if you find any changes in your vision. When you get to it early, about 95 percent of eye disease is treatable,” she said.