What is the Relationship Between Glaucoma and Diabetes?

Claire Jeffreys

Glaucoma is one of the group of eye diseases that people who have diabetes may develop; cataracts and diabetic retinopathy also fall into this group. Unfortunately, eye disease is a common side effect of diabetes and can sometimes lead to complete blindness. The relationship between glaucoma and diabetes, in particular, has been of interest to scientists for years — and at the center of some debate.

Glaucoma causes a person to lose vision gradually.
Glaucoma causes a person to lose vision gradually.

The most common type of this eye disease is primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG); it has long been believed that diabetics are twice as likely as non-diabetics to develop this form of glaucoma. Likewise, a person who already has POAG is at greater risk of developing diabetes than someone who does not have POAG. Although some research has disputed these claims, there remains a large amount of research — such as the July 2010 Nurses’ Health Study — that has shown a positive link between glaucoma and diabetes. This study monitored 76,318 women for 20 years and concluded that type II diabetes — the most common type of diabetes, a mild form that develops gradually in adults — is associated with POAG. Many doctors agree that a relationship between glaucoma and diabetes exists and that one can lead to the other.

Laser eye surgery can sometimes be used to treat glaucoma.
Laser eye surgery can sometimes be used to treat glaucoma.

A much rarer form of this eye disease is neovascular glaucoma. This is always linked to other health conditions, particularly diabetes. Those who have diabetic retinopathy sometimes suffer from damage to their retinas' blood vessels, forcing the retinas to create new, flawed blood vessels. If these new blood vessels attach themselves to the iris, they may block the flow of fluid in the eyes and increase the pressure on them. This extreme eye fluid pressure is the point when neovascular glaucoma can occur.

Treatment for neovascular glaucoma can be difficult, with many sufferers resorting to laser surgery in the hope of getting rid of the abnormal blood vessels on the iris. Another option is implants to drain the excess fluid and reduce eyeball pressure. Treatment is always more effective if early action is taken; it is crucial that those with diabetes undergo eye examinations regularly so that any eye diseases can be spotted in their early stages and further complications, such as vision loss, can hopefully be avoided. For the estimated 16 million Americans who suffer from diabetes, the relationship between glaucoma and diabetes makes an annual eye test an important part of their medical care.

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