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It’s clear, diabetic retinal eye exams decrease the risk for vision loss

Posted May 19, 2022 by Charles A. Zonfa, MD, FACOG, Senior Vice President, Chief Quality Officer, Summa.

If you’re battling diabetes, a retinal eye exam is imperative to your vision health. People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, which can lead to vision loss. In fact, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The retina is the part of your eye that senses and organizes visual information and then communicates with your brain.  When your blood sugar reaches high levels, it can damage the blood vessels in your retina preventing blood from passing through. As the damage worsens, your eyesight can become blurry, less intense and even begin to disappear.

Diabetic retinopathy affects people with Type 1, Type 2 and even gestational diabetes. The longer you have diabetes, the greater your risk for complications. People with diabetes also have a greater chance of developing glaucoma and cataracts.  

During a retinal eye exam, your ophthalmologist is looking for changes in the blood vessels of your retina to detect early signs of vision loss due to diabetes. In the early stages of this condition, you may not notice any symptoms or changes to your eyesight. But if it is not detected and treated in a timely manner, your vision can be damaged permanently.

The good news is managing your diabetes and getting regular eye exams can help prevent vision problems and stop them from getting worse.

If you have Type 1 diabetes, the American Diabetes Association recommends you have a comprehensive eye exam within the first five years after diagnosis. If you have Type 2 diabetes, it’s recommended you get a comprehensive exam shortly after diagnosis.

After your initial eye exam, it’s recommended you get an annual comprehensive diabetic eye exam to monitor the health of your eyes. If abnormalities are found, your ophthalmologist may recommend more frequent exams or refer you to a retinal specialist.

What to expect during a diabetic retinal eye exam

Rest assured, most diabetic retinal eye exams require no preparation and are painless. Your ophthalmologist will begin by discussing your symptoms, diabetes management and assessing your vision using an eye chart. Diabetes can cause several changes inside your eyes that can affect the clarity of your vision.

To get a clear view of your eye’s inner structure and check for damage, your ophthalmologist will need to dilate your pupils using eye drops. The eye drops temporarily make your pupils larger and eliminate their normal reaction to light. This causes blurred vision and may be uncomfortable, but not painful, until it wears off.

During the exam, your ophthalmologist will use a high-powered microscope with a light beam called a slit lamp to get a 3-dimensional view of your retina, blood vessels and optic nerve.

Your ophthalmologist may also take a high-resolution picture of your eye structure to have a permanent record of the appearance of your retina and blood vessels on the day of your exam. This way, your ophthalmologist can show you the image on a digital screen to point out areas of concern and also establish a baseline image of your eye structure.

Your results will be discussed with you right after the exam, including any treatment options, if necessary. While there is no cure for diabetic retinopathy, treatment can slow or even stop the progression of the condition.

If you have diabetes and haven’t been screened for diabetic retinopathy, don’t delay in scheduling a diabetic retinal eye exam.

The eyes can be among the first parts of your body affected by diabetes. However, managing your diabetes with a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a regular routine of diabetic eye exams can help prevent vision problems and stop them from getting worse.