Approximately 700,000 Australians, or 4% of the population, have diabetes. Of these, 98% will develop some form of damage to their vision, a condition known as diabetic retinopathy within 15 years of diagnosis. Optometrists play a fundamental role in diagnosing these conditions in their early stages when they respond more effectively to treatment.

Eye changes

Diabetes sometimes causes the focusing ability of the eye to weaken or to fluctuate from day to day. This characteristic may lead to the optometrist diagnosing diabetes. The problem eases when blood sugar levels are controlled.

Diabetic retinopathy

After diabetes has been present for some years, changes may occur at the back of the eye in the retina. Your optometrist uses an instrument called an ophthalmoscope to check for these changes, known as diabetic retinopathy.
There are two types of this condition:

a) background retinopathy
b) proliferative retinopathy

The risk of developing retinopathy increases with the length of time you have been diabetic. The risk is also increased by poor control of blood sugar levels.

Background retinopathy

This condition rarely causes any vision to be lost and therefore does not require treatment. Occasionally a swelling of the retina may cause hazy vision or straight lines to appear bent.

Proliferative retinopathy

This condition is more serious and requires early treatment to prevent serious vision loss. Your optometrist can recognise signs that this condition might develop or detect it in its early stages. Once proliferative retinopathy has been diagnosed, your optometrist will refer you to an eye surgeon for further appraisal and probable laser treatment. Treatment of this condition has a better chance of success if it is applied very early.

Managing Diabetic Retinopathy

The best management is to have regular eye examinations so that changes can be detected and treated early.
It is advisable for all diabetics to have yearly eye examinations. People who have been diagnosed as having retinopathy should have eye examinations more frequently than once a year.

Diabetes and other vision conditions

Double vision
This is a distressing but rare complication of diabetes. The condition is usually temporary, although it often lasts for a few months. An optometrist can help treat it while it has effect. Diabetes is not the only cause of double vision.

The eye disease glaucoma is slightly more common in diabetics than in non-diabetics. Glaucoma is a condition in which the nerve cells which transmit information from the eye to the brain become damaged, often caused by pressure due to a build-up of fluid in the eye. If untreated, glaucoma can cause blindness.

Cataracts are more likely to occur in diabetic people at an earlier age than in non-diabetics. A cataract is a cloudiness that can form in the lens inside the eye. If present, glaucoma and cataracts are readily detected at your regular eye examination when your optometrist will advise the best management strategy for the condition.

Your optometrist is trained to provide you with the best vision care and advice. Optometrists can help overcome any vision problems caused by diabetes and provide further information about diabetic vision management.

Regular visits to an optometrist are essential because any complication needs to be detected early to ensure effective treatment or referral to a medical practitioner.

Diabetics often have a history of diabetes in their family. Be sure to tell your optometrist if this is the case in your family.

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