What is Retinopathy and How Does It Affect Your Vision?

It is easy for people to take good vision for granted.  After all, eyesight isn’t generally something that people have to consciously think about in order to use and the eyes appear (at least from the surface) to be very simple in construction.  Generally they do their job quietly, without any fanfare, and people only really pay attention to them when something goes wrong.  However, when you investigate more deeply, it becomes clear that the anatomy of the eye is actually made up of many complex parts.  Each one of those parts performs a highly specific purpose and all of them work together to make vision possible.  Among the most important and delicate of those parts is the retina, a layer of light sensitive cells that lines the back of the eye’s interior.  The specialized cells of the retina convert light that is focused through the eye’s lens into nerve impulses which are then transmitted to the brain.  Any damage to the retina, a condition known as retinopathy, can potentially cause serious visual impairment.

What is Retinopathy and How Does It Affect Your Vision

While retinopathy is an umbrella term that refers to any damage to the retina of the eyes, it is almost always the result of abnormal blood flow.  The light-sensitive cells that line the retina are supplied with oxygen and nutrients by a delicate network of tiny blood vessels.  If these blood vessels are damaged, or if the regular flow of blood is otherwise interrupted, the cells will not function as they should.  This can be caused by a number of different factors, including:

  • Hypertension: high blood pressure causes the walls of the artery to thicken, which effectively reduces the amount of blood flow to the retina.
  • Atherosclerosis: a hardening and narrowing of blood vessels will also reduce the flow of blood to the retina.
  • Ultraviolet Radiation: overexposure to the ultraviolet wavelengths in sunlight can effectively “burn” the retina itself, a condition commonly known as sun or snow blindness.
  • Sickle Cell Disease: causes the blood to thicken and flow slowly through the retinal arteries, compromising blood flow to the retina.

However, the single most common cause of retinopathy in Americans age forty and older is diabetes.  Specifically, chronically high blood sugar levels can, over time, gradually break down the walls of the blood vessels.  As these blood vessel walls grow thinner, blood and other fluids start to leak out and into the retina itself.  At first, this leakage only affects the edges of the retina, causing “floaters” to appear in one’s field of vision.  Eventually, however, the weakened blood vessels leak into the middle part of the eye and cause vision to blur.  This condition, called diabetic retinopathy, represents the leading cause of blindness in working-aged people and accounts for about 5% of blindness worldwide.

Fortunately, there are many options for patients who are suffering from retinopathy, particularly if the condition is diagnosed early.  Studies have found that controlling diabetes through diet and exercise can slow the onset and worsening of diabetic retinopathy, and that early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by up to 95 percent.  Even if the disease has begun to affect vision there are treatment options available, such as laser photocoagulation therapy.  A comprehensive medical eye exam can track the progression of the disease, and so are needed more frequently as diabetic retinopathy becomes more severe.  Those with the most advanced cases may require an exam as often as every two to four months because rate at which the disease progresses may change and the condition of the eyes may rapidly deteriorate.  If you have any concerns about your vision, or any questions about how to best maintain the health of your eyes, please contact Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons to schedule an eye exam with Dr. William Segal or Dr. Marc Lay. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for more information on how to keep your vision clear and healthy.