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Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month
By Courtney Caprara

Andrew Eller, M.D.Diabetes affects more than 29 million people in the United States alone, and within the next five years, another 86 million people are at risk of developing the disease, which impairs the regulation of blood sugar. November is Diabetic Eye Disease Awareness Month, which is dedicated to informing people of the negative impact that diabetes can have on vision.

To understand diabetic eye disease, it is important to first understand how the eye functions. "The eye is like a camera," explains Andrew Eller, M.D., professor of ophthalmology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and a UPMC ophthalmologist.

Light enters the eye to cast an image on the retina, which is like the film or digital chip in a camera. The retina changes light to electrical signals which travel through the optic nerve to the brain for processing. The energy needed for this process is supplied to the retina from small blood vessels, which deliver oxygen and nutrients.

Diabetes impacts circulation throughout the body and the eyes are no exception. In diabetic eye disease, the blood vessels within the retina are damaged, resulting in a lack of blood flow to the retina, one of the most critical parts of the eye.

This can result in two different complications, each with different treatment options:

Diabetic Macular Edema - Blood vessels leak fluid and proteins into the macula, which is the center of the retina where our vision is sharpest. Laser treatments can help seal the leaks, and the injection of medications can decrease the permeability of blood vessels, potentially improving vision.

Diabetic Proliferation s- When diabetes harms the blood vessels in the retina, the circulation is limited, and the retina becomes "starved" for nutrition. The eye responds to this loss of nutrition by growing new blood vessels. However, these new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina, do not provided added nutrition, and are very fragile and often break, causing bleeding in the eye. In more advanced stages, the new blood vessels can lead to scar tissue formation and may eventually result in retinal detachment. When laser treatment is applied in a timely manner, the new vessels will shrink, and excellent vision may be preserved. The key is for your eye doctor to detect and perform the laser treatment in a timely manner.

Diabetic eye disease is treatable, and blindness may be prevented if detected early. Dr. Eller cautions diabetics, "It is possible to have a fair amount of damage to the eye but still maintain good vision. There are no warning symptoms of diabetic eye disease aside from a loss of vision, but, at that point, it may be too late to restore lost vision."

In addition maintaining a proper diet, exercise and sleep patterns, Dr. Eller strongly encourages all patients with diabetes to seek routine eye examinations. One exam a year maximizes the likelihood of early detection before vision loss occurs, allowing more time for treatment and reducing the risk of blindness due to diabetic eye disease.

UPMC can provide preventative care and treatment for diabetic eye disease. For more information or to request an appointment with a UPMC ophthalmologist, contact the UPMC Eye Center at (412) 647-2200

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