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Get the Most Out of Your Retinopathy Screenings

By Kira Wang 

These simple guidelines will explain when you should be screened for retinopathy and what questions to ask your healthcare professional. Check out our other Healthy Vision Month articles: 8 tips for healthy eyes, the eye-mind connection, and 10 programs for more affordable eye care

Diabetes-related retinopathy is the leading cause of adult blindness. Over the next 30 years, 14.6 million people in the United States are expected to develop diabetes-related retinopathy. While diabetes-related vision loss is preventable when detected early, studies show that less than half of people with diabetes receive routine eye exams. Check out diaTribe’s infographic on retinopathy

When caring for your eyes, it is important to remember that even though you may not have any symptoms, you may still need treatment for diabetes-related retinopathy. Planning ahead will help you prevent disease progression and vision loss. The ADA suggests in their Standards of Care that people with diabetes follow these guidelines for retinopathy screening by an ophthalmologist or optometrist (eye specialists):

If you are an adult with type 1 diabetes…

Within 5 years after diabetes onset, you will need a dilated, comprehensive eye exam.

If you have type 2 diabetes…

At diagnosis, you will need a dilated, comprehensive eye exam. 

If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes and are planning pregnancy or are currently pregnant…

You should get an eye exam before you become pregnant or in the first trimester. 

Ask your healthcare professional to explain how diabetes-related retinopathy may develop or worsen during pregnancy. 

If your annual eye exams have not shown signs of retinopathy in the past year or more AND your blood sugar is well managed…

It is possible you will only need a dilated eye exam every 1-2 years. Ask your healthcare team if it is safe for you to have less frequent retinopathy screening. 

If early signs of retinopathy were present in your most recent visit…

You will need to have dilated eye exams at least once a year. This is not uncommon – about 40% of adults with diabetes have retinopathy, but only 8% of retinopathy cases threaten vision. 

If your retinopathy is getting worse…

You will need to have exams more frequently than once a year. Talk to your healthcare professional about how often you should be examined. 

If you are going through puberty…

Diabetes-related retinopathy can progress more quickly during this period, so be sure to ask your healthcare professional if you will need appointments more often than once a year. Read the ADA recommendation here.

Diabetes-related retinopathy can be diagnosed by an ophthalmologist or an optometrist. In a busy eye exam, it may be hard to follow along with everything your specialist is saying, so always feel free to ask them to slow down and explain each step. 

The primary way eye care professionals look at your eye is through a comprehensive, dilated eye exam. A few eye dropswill be used to dilate (enlarge) your pupils. (Dilation can cause sensitivity to bright light and blurry vision for a few hours after your exam.) This type of exam is most commonly used to assess diabetes-related retinopathy, and most insurers cover it.  

Another method for diagnosing diabetes-related retinopathy is by taking a picture of your retina. Depending on what type of imaging system your provider uses, you may or may not need to have your eyes dilated. Imaging for routine screening is generally not covered by insurance, so be sure to ask your healthcare team about cost.

While caring for your eyes, be prepared and be proactive! Here are some questions you might ask your eye care professional in your next appointment: 

  • Will you send my results to my primary care provider?

  • Can I have a copy of my results? 

  • When should my next appointment be? 

  • What symptoms should I look out? 

  • Will I need to get my eyes dilated in my next exam? (If so, you will need someone to drive you to your appointment.)

  • Given my current eyesight, is it safe for me to drive? 

  • Do you recommend that I seek out vision rehabilitation services? 

  • Would a low-vision examination be helpful for me? 

  • What more can I be doing to protect my eyesight? 

  • Do you recommend any educational pamphlets or resources to help me learn more about diabetes-related eye disease?

As Healthy Vision Month comes to an end, we want to remind you that retinopathy screening is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent diabetes-related vision loss. If you missed our other articles from the Healthy Vision Month series, you can find them here. Check out diaTribe’s infographic on retinopathy here.

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