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Can an Eye Exam Detect Diabetic Retinopathy?

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A male optician is taking a closer look at the pupil of a male patient's eye while performing a dilated retinal exam.

Did you know that an eye exam can detect more than just your current prescription? In fact, an eye exam can also detect diabetic retinopathy, a condition that affects the blood vessels in the retina and can lead to vision loss if left untreated.

This is why it’s important to see an optometrist regularly, especially if you have diabetes. In this blog, we will take a closer look at how an eye exam can detect diabetic retinopathy and the tests that are used. Keep reading to learn more!

What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that affects the eyes. It occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye.

There are two main types of diabetic retinopathy: non-proliferative and proliferative.

  • Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) is the early stage of the condition, and it is characterized by small bulges in the blood vessels, called microaneurysms. These bulges can leak blood and fluid into the retina, causing swelling, or edema.
  • As the condition progresses, new blood vessels may grow on the surface of the retina, a condition known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). These new blood vessels are fragile and can easily rupture, leading to bleeding in the eye and the formation of scar tissue. This can cause the retina to detach from the back of the eye, leading to blindness.

Diabetic retinopathy often has no symptoms in the early stages, so regular eye exams are crucial for people with diabetes. Treatment options include laser therapy, which can seal leaking blood vessels and prevent new blood vessels from growing, and surgery to remove scar tissue and reattach the retina.

How Is Diabetic Retinopathy Detected?

During a comprehensive eye exam, your optometrist will use a variety of tests to check for diabetic retinopathy. These tests may include:

  • A dilated eye exam
  • A fundus photograph
  • OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) 

These tests allow the eye care professional to detect any signs of diabetic retinopathy such as:

  • Swelling of the retina
  • Leakage of blood or fluid in the eye
  • Formation of abnormal new blood vessels.

If diabetic retinopathy is detected, treatment options may include laser therapy, medications, or surgery to prevent vision loss.

Dilated Eye Exam

One of the most important tests for diabetic retinopathy is the dilated eye exam, as it allows your optometrist to see any changes in the blood vessels that may be indicative of the condition. 

During the exam, our optometrists administer drops to the eyes to widen (dilate) the pupils of our patient, allowing our doctors to get a better view of the back of the eye and the blood vessels that supply the retina.

Fundus Photograph

A fundus photograph is a specialized photograph of the back of the eye (the retina) taken using a fundus camera. This camera has a special lens that allows for a wide-angle view of the retina, making it possible to see the blood vessels and other structures in the back of the eye in great detail.

During the test, the patient’s eye is dilated with eye drops to widen the pupils, and then the fundus camera is positioned over the eye. The photograph is taken while the patient looks at a target in the camera. This process is typically repeated for both eyes.

Changes to the eye can occur early in the disease and may not be visible during a routine eye exam, making the fundus photograph an important diagnostic tool.

A close-up of a young female patient looking through the Tomography in Optical Coherence (OCT) equipment, Useful for detecting changes in the retina that can indicate the early stages of diabetic retinopathy.

OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) 

OCT is a non-invasive imaging test that uses light waves to create detailed cross-sectional images of the retina, and the back of the eye. It works by shining a light into the eye and measuring the reflection. The test is quick, painless, and non-invasive, and it doesn’t require any special preparation.

An OCT scan can detect several eye conditions, including:

It’s particularly useful for detecting changes in the retina that can indicate the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. 

In diabetic retinopathy, the test helps to detect the microvascular changes that occur in the retina, such as thickening of the retina, swelling of the macula, as well as the presence of hard exudates (lipid deposits) and microaneurysms (small bulges in blood vessels).

Diabetic Eye Exams

Regular diabetic eye exams are crucial for the early detection and management of diabetic retinopathy. It’s recommended that people with diabetes have a comprehensive eye exam at least once a year, or more often if advised by their eye doctor.If you’re due for your next comprehensive eye exam, book an appointment online with Aurora Eye Care.

Written by Dr. Kyla Hunter

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