October 14 is World Sight Day, a global event meant to draw attention to blindness and vision impairment. This article is part of creating awareness on eye health and the need to take care of eyesight.
He was the anchor of our family and despite having lived with diabetes for some time, he was generally in good health. Then suddenly he was faced with darkness, quite literally, as he was driving home on one fateful day.
A man who was not only self-reliant but also responsible for his family’s wellbeing was reduced to a dependant at the prime of his life.
These words are narrated in anguish by one of Kenya's top ophthalmologists about how his father lost his eyesight to one of the preventable causes of avoidable blindness, diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetes, a condition suffered by about 4 per cent of Kenyans, has many manifestations in the eye, of which cataracts and Diabetic Retinopathy (DR) are the most significant cause of visual impairment and blindness.
People living with diabetes are 25 times more likely than the general population to become blind. Diabetes that occurs only during pregnancy, called gestational diabetes, does not usually cause eye problems. But if you have diabetes and become expectant, you can develop eye problems very quickly during your pregnancy.
Diabetes affects your eyes when your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. The longer you have diabetes and the less controlled your blood sugar is, the more likely you are to suffer vision loss.
In the short term, you are not likely to have permanent vision loss, but high glucose can change fluid levels or cause swelling in the tissues of your eyes that help you to focus, causing blurred vision. This type of blurry vision is temporary and goes away when your glucose level gets closer to normal.
If your blood glucose stays high over time, it can damage the tiny blood vessels in the back of your eyes, causing them to leak and cause swelling of tissues at the back of the eye. To compensate for the damaged blood vessels, your body initiates growth of new blood vessels but these tend to be weak and often bleed into the middle part of the eye, leading to scarring, or cause dangerously high pressure inside your eye.
Often there are no early symptoms of diabetic eye disease. Even though vessel damage may begin during the pre-diabetes stage, when blood glucose is higher than normal, but not high enough for you to be diagnosed with diabetes, you may have no pain and no change in your vision as damage begins to grow inside your eyes.
For this reason many patients, like the good doctor’s father, do not show up in hospital until its too late.
As the condition progresses, you might develop:
- Blurred vision / poor color vision
- Dark or empty areas in your vision
- Spots or dark strings floating in your vision (floaters)
- Frequently changing vision—sometimes from day to day
- Complete vision loss which, sadly, occurs in a lot of Kenyans due to delayed diagnosis.
When to see an eye doctor
Careful management of your diabetes is the best way to prevent vision loss. If you have diabetes, see your eye doctor for an annual eye exam even if your vision seems fine. Finding and treating diabetic eye complications early can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 per cent.
If you are pregnant, your eye doctor might recommend additional eye exams throughout your pregnancy.
Contact an optician right away if your vision changes suddenly or becomes blurry, spotty or hazy.