November is National Diabetes Month and this gives me the opportunity to get up on my soapbox and shout through my megaphone about the importance of yearly eye exams. For patients who know they have diabetes, dilated eye exams are crucial in order to ensure that there is no diabetic retinopathy in the back part of the eye which if not treated can lead to blindness.
So what is diabetes and how does it affect your eyes? Diabetes is a disease which according to the CDC affects more than 100 million Americans and interferes with the body’s ability to store and utilize sugar. Very often patients who are unaware that they are diabetic will experience scary fluctuations in vision which will bring them into my office to see what’s going on. At this point I will refer them out for blood work and a visit with the primary doctor to check for diabetes. Changes in blood sugar can cause these wild changes in the prescription which will stabilize once the glucose (sugar) levels are under control. Once someone has had diabetes for many years and/or has poor control of their sugar levels, the risk of having diabetic retinopathy skyrockets. Diabetic retinopathy happens when the small blood vessels on the back surface of the eye weaken and leak blood and fluid into the retina. If this progresses further without blood vessels shutting off and the creation of new abnormal blood vessels creating scarring which can cause vision loss and/or blindness.
How do you prevent this? The key is keeping blood sugar levels under tight control. This is accomplished by paying attention to diet, exercising, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol under control and not smoking – in other words – maintaining a healthy lifestyle. One important number to be aware of when you come in for your eye exam is your HA1C (or glycosylated hemoglobin) which reflects the overall blood sugar levels over a three month period. Generally this number should be under 7.
All diabetic patients get a letter sent to their primary doctor after their eye exam with the results of the retinal evaluation. If there is retinopathy the primary doc may have to tinker with the meds in order to achieve better glucose control. Above all, be vigilant about any vision changes that are scary or unusual. As I always tell my patients, nothing is stupid or trivial and I’d rather check you and find nothing than have you ignore something serious.