Diabetic Eye Diseases: 5 Ways Diabetes Affects Your Eyes


Statistics on diabetes and eye health are skyrocketing as medical technology becomes more advanced and new methods of diagnosing issues are discovered. Diabetic eye disease is the number one cause of vision loss among working-age adults. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common form of diabetic eye disease, affecting around 26% of diabetic American adults, which translates to around 9.6 million people.

Cases of blindness resulting from diabetic retinopathy can be preventable if caught early. However, symptoms are not often noticeable until the late stages of the disease, which is why patients receiving regular retinal exams is an essential component of diabetes care. 

But how and why does diabetes affect your eyes? And what measures can be taken to ensure that these diabetic eye diseases are prevented and diminished in our population?

Why Does Diabetes Affect Your Eyes?

There are three types of diabetes (type 1, type 2, and gestational). All involve the body improperly handling insulin, a hormone that delivers glucose (blood sugar) to the cells. If an individual has too much glucose in their bloodstream because insulin is not carrying it to the cells, this can damage blood vessels and nerves. 

Over time, the body’s mismanagement of glucose weakens the blood vessels around the retina. If signs of pathology in the retina are undetected and left untreated, the vessels can rupture and leak blood into the eye. This can eventually lead to more severe consequences, including blindness.

How Does Diabetes Affect Your Eyes?

Diabetes can affect your eyes in several ways. How can you tell if diabetes is affecting your eyes? One of the first general signs of diabetes is blurred vision. Patients may also experience diabetes light sensitivity, making them more prone to glare and discomfort in bright environments. Try out our vision simulator to experience how various conditions affect a patient’s vision. 

1. Cataracts

Cataracts are characterized by a clouding of the internal lens of your eye. This lens is essential to focusing on objects. Thus, when a cataract forms, it impairs one’s ability to see. Cataracts can form earlier and get worse faster in people with diabetes. Noticing blurred vision, a glare, sensitivity to light, faded colors, or halos can all be symptoms of cataracts.

2. Glaucoma

One form of glaucoma, neovascular glaucoma, is caused by diabetes. Since damage to the retina’s blood vessels occurs in those with diabetes due to the buildup of glucose in the bloodstream, it can subsequently result in the creation of abnormal new blood vessels. This causes high pressure in the eye, thus damaging the optic nerve, known as glaucoma. Symptoms of glaucoma include tunnel vision, a halo effect, reddening of the eye, nausea, or vomiting.

3. Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. The condition is caused by the leaking of blood vessels in the light-sensitive tissue of the eye. This can cause new blood vessels to form in place of the damaged ones on the retina’s surface.

Diabetic retinopathy is particularly dangerous. At the start of its development, there are little to no symptoms. Eventually, individuals experience spots or dark strings in their vision (called floaters), blurred vision, fluctuating vision, or dark/empty areas. Diabetic retinopathy’s quick symptomatic onset is one of the main reasons annual retinal screenings are so crucial to preventing blindness.

4. Macular Edema

Macular edema is closely related to diabetic retinopathy. The macula is the center of the retina, which gives way for sharp, clear vision. It can swell because of the leaky blood vessels that diabetes can cause. This buildup of fluid causes the macula to swell and thicken, distorting vision. It is a symptom itself of diabetic retinopathy. Symptoms of macular edema include wavy vision and color changes.

5. Swelling of the Eye Lens

Another eye issue that can arise with a diabetic patient is swelling of the eye lens. If one’s blood sugar levels change from low to normal quickly, the shape of the eye lens can be affected and cause vision to blur. After blood sugar stabilization, vision tends to go back to normal, but it is still a temporary problem that can arise.

Diabetic Eye Disease Prevention

The best way for primary care physicians to ensure their patients with diabetes identify and treat these diseases early is to provide them with easy access to retinal screenings that identify these diseases while still in preventable stages. 

Advancements in the treatment and research of diabetic retinopathy have expanded treatment options and improved patient outcomes. In diagnostics, technological innovations have vastly improved early detection and monitoring of diabetic retinopathy.

what is a diabetic eye exam

Advancements in Treatment and Research

Advancements in the treatment of diabetic retinopathy have revolutionized patient care. Traditional treatments like laser therapy have been complemented by innovative approaches such as intravitreal injections of anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) agents, which help to reduce retinal swelling and leakage. 

Several companies have significantly contributed to this space, including Genentech and Regeneron, which developed anti-VEGF therapies Lucentis and Eylea, respectively. Biosimilars are expected to see significant growth in 2024 and beyond. These biologic products offer similar efficacy and may provide cost savings and increased patient access.

Additionally, surgical techniques like vitrectomy have become more refined, improving outcomes for severe cases.

On the research front, ongoing studies explore new therapeutic targets and delivery methods, including sustained-release drug implants and gene therapies. These efforts aim to enhance treatment efficacy and durability while minimizing side effects.

Advancements in Diagnostic Technology

Recent advancements in diagnostic technology for diabetic retinopathy have significantly improved early detection and management of this condition. Artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning algorithms have emerged as powerful tools offering high accuracy in helping to detect retinal lesions. These technologies are integrated into existing imaging modalities like fundus photography and optical coherence tomography (OCT), enabling a faster baseline analysis of retinal images. 

Additionally, smartphone-based fundus imaging systems provide a cost-effective and accessible solution for remote screening, which is particularly beneficial in underserved communities. 

These innovations enhance the detection rates of diabetic retinopathy and facilitate timely intervention, thereby reducing the risk of severe vision loss. Compared to some technologies, Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems (IRIS) is notable for its ease of implementation and the ability to work within existing healthcare workflows. 

Taking Steps Towards Treating Diabetic Retinopathy with IRIS 

Screening for potential degenerative eye diseases like cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy might seem like a heavy lift for a primary physician’s office. However, with comprehensive eye care solutions like IRIS, it becomes easy to implement programs through human interpretation or through artificially intelligent software either of which can drastically improve the quality of care providers can offer to their patients.

The IRIS solution applies image enhancement technology to all fundus images uploaded to our cloud-based platform. When a fundus image is taken and uploaded, the orange coloring and shaded areas of the photo – a common reason for ungradable images – are put through IRIS’s proprietary image enhancement algorithm, which illuminates the vasculature and potentially hidden pathology.

DRS Eye Camera

The benefits of IRIS extend far beyond our technology. This fundus image enhancement comes with optional access to the IRIS Reading Center. The IRIS Reading Center is comprises board-certified eye care physicians who remotely diagnose retinal images via the IRIS Platform.

Interested in helping your patients with diabetes catch and treat diseases like diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma? Reach out to us today for an IRIS retinal screening demo to learn how you can help end preventable blindness.


Diabetic Eye Diseases FAQ

What does diabetes feel like in your eyes?

Diabetes can manifest in various sensory experiences that affect the eyes. Patients may report fluctuating vision, ranging from periods of clear vision to blurred or distorted sight. They might also complain of eye strain, discomfort, or even occasional fluctuations in blood sugar levels that directly impact visual acuity.

What do diabetic eye problems look like?

Diabetic eyesight complications typically present with distinct physical manifestations. Diabetic retinopathy is characterized by the damage of blood vessels in the retina. This damage can lead to bleeding, swelling, and the growth of abnormal blood vessels, impairing vision. Another complication is diabetic macular edema, where fluid accumulates in the central part of the retina, known as the macula, leading to blurry or distorted vision.

What are the most common eye problems with diabetes?

The most prevalent eye problems linked with diabetes include diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema, cataracts, and glaucoma. These conditions can significantly impair vision and necessitate timely intervention to prevent irreversible damage.

What does blurred vision from diabetes feel like?

Blurred vision stemming from diabetes often feels like attempting to see through a dense fog or haze. Individuals may struggle to focus on objects, particularly those nearby, experiencing a significant hindrance in their visual clarity and sharpness.

What does diabetes do to your eyes?

Diabetes can damage the eyes by causing diabetic retinopathy, where high blood sugar harms retinal blood vessels, and diabetic macular edema, which impairs central vision due to fluid buildup. Additionally, diabetes can increase the risk of cataracts and glaucoma.



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