Patients struggling to manage diabetes face a variety of health issues affecting virtually every system in the body. Eye health and vision are not exempt from the repercussions of diabetes. The eyes are especially delicate and complex organs. Diabetes is a proverbial wrench that, when thrown into the works of our fragile eyes, can significantly disrupt their proper function.
One of the hallmarks of diabetes is an excess of glucose, a simple sugar, in the blood. Insulin is necessary to break this sugar down. Due to a lack of insulin, people with diabetes can’t effectively process glucose.
High blood glucose levels result in thicker blood. One of the side effects of thicker blood is its tendency to pull more fluid from the body’s tissues, including eye tissue, in order to thin out the blood. The lens of the eye, which is essential for focusing vision, will begin to swell if it is inundated with too much fluid. If the lens becomes misshapen because of the swelling, it will no longer properly focus, ultimately resulting in blurry, fuzzy eyesight.
The extent to which this occurs varies widely between patients. As with every other part of the body, no two people’s eyes are exactly alike. Some people with diabetes experience blurry vision all the time until their blood glucose levels reach and maintain a healthy equilibrium. Others may only experience the effects of lens swelling after ingesting a particularly carb-heavy meal.
A similar reaction sometimes occurs when a patient begins to receive insulin as part of diabetes management. The insulin addresses the lens swelling due to excess liquid, but this correction does involve fluid leaving the lens, which changes its shape, and as a result, a patient’s ability to focus.
In most circumstances, normal vision without blurriness will come back after this change is complete, although it can take weeks in some cases.1
Diabetic retinopathy is an umbrella term for multiple retina issues related to diabetes, most notably macular edema and proliferative retinopathy.
Similar to the lens swelling due to excess fluid, diabetic macular edema occurs when the macula swells for the same reason. Vision symptoms may include changes in perceived colors and vision waviness.
Patients who have suffered proliferative retinopathy, or blood vessels leaking into the eye’s center, often describe vision spotting. They may also experience a significant reduction of their ability to see in darker conditions.2
At the other end of the spectrum are the effects of hypoglycemia, or a dangerously low blood glucose level. Patients experiencing hypoglycemia may temporarily suffer from double vision because of the brain’s inability to properly process the information it’s receiving from the eye, not because of any effects on the eye itself.
Other Vision Issues Sometimes Associated With Diabetes
There is some evidence that diabetes can contribute to glaucoma and cataracts. More specifically, people who have diabetes have a higher likelihood of developing cataracts earlier in life compared to people who are not diabetic.3, 4
People with diabetes are two to five times more likely to develop cataracts than people without diabetes.5 It’s estimated that 20 percent of patients who undergo cataract correction procedures are diabetics.
One of the key causes of glaucoma is excessive pressure due to an increase in fluid, a similar root cause to many other vision complications related to diabetes. Glaucoma can lead to complete vision loss if left untreated, but is unfortunately difficult to detect due to its lack of initial symptoms.
Vigilance Is Key to Prevention and Treatment
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with diabetes, staying on top of preventative medicine and checkups is hugely important. Along with visiting your primary care physician, you will also be well served by scheduling regular eye exams. The sooner eye-related issues can be detected and treated, the less likely serious and irreversible vision loss will occur.
You can schedule an appointment with our highly skilled, board-certified Twin Cities area ophthalmologists by calling 952-832-8100.