Eye on diabetes

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, November 12, 2009

Most Americans know that diabetes can lead to a variety of health problems, including low blood sugar and exhaustion. What they may not know is that it can also lead to eventual blindness.

Dr. Bill Tillman, optometrist at Tillman Family Eye Care in Andalusia, said having diabetes can lead to several different vision problems.

“It can result in vision impairment, because people with diabetes tend to get cataracts more easily,” he said. “There’s a higher risk of glaucoma. Also, there’s a diabetes-related disorder that can eventually lead to blindness.”

That disorder is called “diabetic retinopathy,” and it occurs when blood vessels in the eye’s retina begin to leak, bleed or become blocked. Tillman explained that all people with diabetes are susceptible to this disorder, and it is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults 20-74 years old.

However, he added that advances in technology now allow for early detection.

“A lot of times you don’t notice until the symptoms are too far along for the disorder to be treated,” he said. “But if you catch it early, you can treat it and prevent permanent vision loss.”

Tillman said to test for retinopathy, an optometrist will first dilate a patient’s pupil, and then look through a special microscope to inspect the retina. If a patient’s retinopathy is discovered early enough, the patient can then be treated with medicine injections or even laser surgery, in the most serious cases.

Tillman said there are 23 million Americans who suffer from diabetes, and almost 6 million of those people are not aware they have the disease. He has seen several patients over the years that complained of blurred vision, only to discover they had diabetes after finishing their eye exams.

In addition to blurred vision, other symptoms of retinopathy include fluctuating or blurring of vision, occasional double vision, night vision problems, and flashers or floaters seen by one or both eyes.

“Part of living with diabetes and successful eye care is having a dilated eye examination on at least an annual basis,” Tillman said. “And you should have an examination even more often if you have existing eye issues or more serious retinopathy.”

November is American Diabetes Month, a national campaign by the American Diabetes Association to increase public awareness about the disease. For more information, visit online at diabetes.org.