“Damaged blood vessels may become blocked, meaning that parts of the retina become starved of oxygen and nutrients,” explains Associate Professor Peter van Wijngaarden, deputy director of the Center for Eye Research Australia.
This can spark the retina to grow new blood vessels in the fluid-filled part of the eye, which “sway” when the eyes move and get in the way of clear vision, plus cause scar damage that can pull the retina away from the wall of the eye, causing permanent vision loss.
“These changes generally occur gradually in the retina over many years and often without any symptoms until the damage is quite advanced,” van Wijngaarden says.
“Diabetic retinopathy often progresses to advanced, sight-threatening stages with no symptoms and waiting until the vision is affected risks irreversible vision loss.”
Reading about diabetic retinopathy can certainly be alarming, but fortunately an annual eye check can make all the difference.
Optometrists are able to use special “optical coherence” scans to get a clear picture of your eye health, which gives clues about the state of your blood vessels.
“Through this scan we can see what the blood vessels look like without doing anything really invasive,” explains Greeshma Patel, Specsavers optometrist.
“There could be all sorts of things happening on a retina level. If the screening is done early and regularly, it gives us the opportunity to step in.”
If optometrists detect changes in blood vessels, they can refer patients back to their GP or endocrinologist to tweak their diabetes management plan before eyesight damage sets in.
“Eye checks should begin soon after diabetes is diagnosed as the changes may have been occurring over the months or years before the diagnosis was made,” van Wijngaarden adds.
“Along with regular eye checks, one of the best ways to reduce the chances of developing diabetic retinopathy is to manage blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol levels as advised by your doctor.”
If diabetic retinopathy has already caused vision damage, Wijngaarden says treatment involves laser, injections or surgery.
“Any change in your vision should be checked by your optometrist, ophthalmologist or doctor,” he says. “Sudden changes of vision warrant urgent eye checks.”
Those with diabetes already have a lot to manage, but Patel says the annual eye test only takes 20-30 minutes so is worth locking it in for the same month each year to take it off your mental to-do list – especially if you don ‘t wear glasses.
“When you are used to wearing glasses, you go to the optometrist regularly but if you don’t, and you pride yourself on great vision, it’s even more important to have your eyes checked,” she says.
Make sure you alert the optometrist about your diabetes, as the test they will use is different to a standard eyesight test for glasses.
Diabetes Australia Group CEO Justine Cain suggests you register with KeepSight to receive reminders about eye tests.
“People with diabetes make an average of 180 extra diabetes-related decisions every day – this is time-consuming and sometimes things get overlooked,” she says.
“KeepSight is like a diabetes personal assistant to help people stay on top of their health. Eighty-five per cent of diabetes-related blindness is preventable if detected early.”
To book in for an appointment or for more information, go to specsavers.com.au/stores