oo often, diseases such as high blood pressure progress without noticeable symptoms – patients experience no obvious physical changes until something serious happens.
But your retina – the light-sensitive layer of the eye that helps form visual images – is a unique area of the body that lets us merge the present with the future.
The eyes are full of tiny blood vessels that are affected by diseases that impact blood flow. At UT Southwestern’s Department of Ophthalmology, we see patients with a range of diseases that have caused serious, sometimes irreversible retinal damage, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Autoimmune conditions
- Genetic conditions
Examining the retina provides clues to developing disease processes that may have major, negative effects on your vision. Sometimes, we detect potentially life-threatening conditions.
That’s part of the reason why regular eye screenings are so important. In general, adults with no known vision problems should have an eye screening every one to two years. However, if you -have a health condition that may affect the eyes, your doctor might suggest having your eyes examined more frequently.
Unfortunately, many patients have more than one disease that can affect their retina. Let’s discuss four types of systemic diseases and how they can affect your eyes, what treatments are available, and how to potentially prevent severe vision damage.
Diabetes is a disease in which blood glucose (blood sugar) levels are too high, which can cause significant changes in the large and small blood vessels of the body. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetes-related eye disease in U.S. adults and a leading cause of blindness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two types of diabetic retinopathy:
- Nonproliferative: Dilated blood vessels (microaneurysms) and areas of retinal bleeding (haemorrhages) develop in the retina. These are signs that your eye is changing because of diabetes though they do not always cause vision changes. You may also have swelling in the central retina (macular oedema) which is more likely to cause vision changes.
- Proliferative: You develop abnormal blood vessels (neovascularization) that can bleed or pull on the retina and cause retinal detachment, which can lead to blindness.
What matters most in terms of retina damage is how long you’ve had diabetes and how well it has been controlled. Often, patients with type 1 diabetes are more at risk for eye problems since the disease typically starts in childhood. However, patients with type 2 diabetes may live for years without knowing they have the disease, putting them at high risk for retinal concerns.
Ideally, patients will get checked regularly for diabetes. If you have it, work with your doctor to control your blood sugar and blood pressure, which should help limit the effect diabetes can have on your body.
Treatment options: Retinal detachments can potentially be fixed with surgery if caught early; however, the surgery requires a long recovery. Even with repair, retinal detachments can cause serious effects on vision, including blindness.
Swelling and abnormal blood vessels may be treated with injections or laser treatment to help stabilize the eye and prevent a retinal detachment. However, the treatments do not address underlying diabetes.