Acupuncture for Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that can, if left untreated, cause blindness. An estimated half a million Canadians currently have diabetic retinopathy and it is currently the leading cause of blindness in Canadians under 50 (1).

When blood sugar levels are high the tiny blood vessels at the back of the eye (the retina) can become blocked. In order to maintain the blood supply to retina new vessels will attempt to form but may leak easily or grow abnormally. All three of these outcomes, blood vessel blockage, leaking blood vessels, or abnormal blood vessel growth can all gradually affect your vision.

There are two types of diabetic retinopathy: nonproliferative (early stage), and proliferative (advanced stage).

  • Nonproliferative – This type can be broken down into mild, moderate, and severe stages. Nonproliferative means that there are no new blood vessels growing yet. Instead, the existing vessels swell as sugar begins to clog them. As more and more of the vessels become blocked they begin to leak and parts of the retina suffer from a lack of blood supply. Once severe enough, the body will be signaled to start growing new blood vessels (2).
  • Proliferative – New blood vessels begin to grow along the retina but they are fragile and leak blood and fluid. At this stage blurry vision can progress quickly to severe vision loss or blindness as well as increasing the risk of developing other problems like glaucoma or a detached retina.

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy can include dark spots anywhere in your visual field, blurry or distorted vision, seeing double, or large floaters that move around. However, diabetic retinopathy may not cause vision loss right away so it is very important that people living with diabetes get regular eye exams in order to detect and treat it as early as possible (at least once per year unless otherwise recommended)(3).

What are the most common causes of diabetic retinopathy?

Anyone living with diabetes, whether it be Type 1 or Type 2, can develop diabetic retinopathy although the likelihood depends on several factors. The longer someone has diabetes and the more severe it is, the greater their risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Risk also increases in people with uncontrolled high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and tobacco use.

Standard Western medical treatments

For the mild to moderate nonproliferative stages of diabetic retinopathy, no Western medical treatments are recommended. Instead, working to manage your blood sugar and reduce other risk factors is the main approach and can prevent further vision loss. At the same time, regular eye exams should be performed to monitor the condition of your eyes.

In the later proliferative stage, your doctor may recommend laser eye treatment, vitrectomy, or intraocular injections (4).

How can Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture treat diabetic retinopathy?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) aims to correct underlying issues which are concurrent to the retinal issues caused by the diabetes.  We know that the eye issue did not progress on it’s own, rather there was a leadup to the breakdown of the retina, thus we must address the overall health to ensure proper eye health as well.

Because diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes, TCM treatment will in part aim to help the body manage the disease and subdue related symptoms by focusing on the strength of the pancreas and spleen. This typically involves the use of herbal medicines and/or a medicated diet to help manage blood sugar levels and strengthen the body. Just like Western treatment, the TCM approach to diabetic retinopathy must include dietary and lifestyle modifications to ensure the best results.

To address the eyes directly, TCM treatment aims to slow down or stop the tiny vessels from bleeding, drain fluid from the eyes, and encourage the proper flow of oxygenated blood through the retina.  The importance is on proper circulation maintained throughout the retina and it’s structures.  This is done by using a combination of acupuncture and herbal medicine, which is custom tailored to each patient depending on how the disease has manifested itself.

How can Acupuncture help treat diabetic retinopathy?

Acupuncture treatment for diabetic retinopathy is able to benefit the eyes by regulating blood flow and improving the circulation to the back of the eye (retina).  By improving the circulation, the weakened vessels, macular edema, and fat deposits are able to work themselves out.  By increasing the circulation to the retina, this will help to improve the eye function and decrease the amount of damage done to the eye.  Often, patients will notice an increase in vision following treatments.  The treatment usually involves careful insertion of acupuncture needles at points in the hands, feet, and around the eyebrow.  NO needles go into the eye.  Our clinic uses a special type of treatment that is uniquely designed to help with degenerative vision loss.  Our practitioners have extensive training in this field.  For more information on how acupuncture can help with this and other vision disorders, visit our page on How Natural Eye Regeneration Works.

If you or a loved one are experiencing vision problems related to diabetic retinopathy or other conditions like glaucoma or macular degeneration, please do not hesitate to contact us to find out if/how Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can benefit you, and help maintain your eyesight.





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