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If you’re diabetic, you have special concerns when it comes to your eyes. A common complication of diabetes is diabetic retinopathy, which affects up to 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes.

“Patients with diabetes are at risk for diabetic retinopathy, which can cause blindness,” explains Riemer Eye Center ophthalmologist Richard Brenz, M.D. “Too much sugar in the blood damages the tiny blood vessels in the eye. Some blood vessels can become blocked completely, cutting off the blood supply to the retina.”

The retina is the part of the eye that receives light and converts it to signals that are sent to the brain to create a picture. It plays a vital role in vision, and without an adequate blood supply, the retina becomes damaged and cannot work properly. This causes loss of vision.

Richard Brenz, M.D.In response to the lack of blood supply, the eye also attempts to grow new blood vessels. But they often don’t develop correctly and can leak, which also causes a loss of vision,” says Dr. Brenz. There are no early symptoms of diabetic retinopathy. This means taking action early can prevent vision loss. The best way to detect a problem is regular eye exams that include a dilated exam by your ophthalmologist.

“Patients with diabetes should come in for an eye exam at least once a year,” advises Dr. Brenz. “We use drops to dilate the eyes so we can see the areas that may be damaged by diabetes.”

Prevention

The best treatment for diabetic retinopathy is prevention. If you have diabetes, keep careful control of your blood sugar, blood pressure and blood cholesterol. If you already have diabetic retinopathy, managing those three key health measures will slow the progression of the disease.

Laser Treatment

“After years of damage by high blood sugar, the diseased retina releases special growth chemicals that trigger the growth of new blood vessels. This condition is called proliferative retinopathy,” says Dr. Brenz. “When patients reach this stage, we can shrink the new blood vessels using laser treatment.” As many as 1,000 to 2,000 tiny spots of laser energy are delivered to the area, shrinking and sealing off the vessels. Depending on your condition, your doctor may complete the treatment in two or more sessions. “Laser treatment works better before the fragile, new blood vessels have started to bleed. That is why it is important to have regular, comprehensive dilated eye exams. But even if bleeding has started, laser treatment may still be possible for some patients,” says Dr. Brenz.

Maculopathy Treatment

When the central part of the eye is involved, the condition is called maculopathy. In addition to laser treatment for this type of diabetic retinopathy, treatment may include injections of (anti-VEGF) medications. “Using a local anesthetic first, we inject medicines which block the chemical that causes new blood vessels to form,” says Dr. Brenz. The best way to prevent vision loss and care for your eyes – whether you are diabetic or not – is to see your eye doctor every year for a dilated exam.

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