As many patients with diabetes learn, there are many potential complications related to diabetes. Many people hear horror stories of patients losing their vision, or toes, or even kidneys. Fortunately, with modern day medications and lifestyle changes, complications are preventable with medical intervention.

But what is diabetes and why are eye exams and eye care for diabetes so important?

First, we need to understand what diabetes is. In short, diabetes is a disease in which the body is unable to decrease the blood glucose/sugar levels, because the body’s insulin either does not work well or is in short supply. Why is this a bad thing? The answer lies within the lining of the blood vessels. Specific cells within the innermost lining of the blood vessels, called pericytes, are responsible for the health of the blood vessels. Unfortunately, glucose is toxic to these cells. As these cells die, the blood vessels shut down and cut off the blood supply to areas of the body.

This is where the eye exam comes in. The eye is the only place in the whole body where you can see the blood vessels of the body in their “natural habitat”. With a dilated eye exam, your ophthalmologist can actually visualize the blood vessels in your eyes and see if the vessels are shutting down, leaking or even bleeding. This gives your eye doctor and your primary care physician an idea on the extent of the damage caused by the disease. If the ophthalmologist sees damage to blood vessels in the eyes, than we also know the same damage is happening all over the body — the kidneys, liver, brain, heart, etc. Not only that, the ophthalmologist can also determine any new changes from year to year.

Image result for diabetic retinopathy
Diabetes Changes in the retina. The red spots are blood from exploding blood vessel. The white spots are protein that is leaking from the blood vessels.

The general rule is that all individuals with diabetes should get a full dilated eye exam at least once a year, and sometimes more. This applies to both diabetic adults and children.