Around 360,000 people in the UK are registered as blind or partially sighted. However, it may surprise you to learn that up to two million Brits are living with sight loss, according to the RNIB. Blindness is distinct from some of the other conditions we’ve covered in the sense that it’s not a specific condition in its own right. Instead, blindness is a result of certain other eye conditions.
Today's article will take a look at some of these conditions, including their causes, symptoms, and the treatments available to you. Sight loss can be very distressing, so it's important to understand how to manage your condition.
Conditions that can cause Blindness
AMD (Age Related Macular Degeneration)
Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is the leading cause of sight loss in the UK. It is a progressive disease which damages the macula, a central part of the retina in the eye. Current estimates suggest that 10% of Brits over 60 have early AMD (meaning that the condition is beginning but not yet affecting their vision). While this condition cannot cause complete blindness, it can affect your vision significantly. It tends to progress gradually, though can progress quickly in some cases.
There are two types of this eye condition:
- Dry AMD - Caused by a build-up of deposits on the macula, accounts for 90% of cases.
- Wet AMD - Caused by abnormal blood vessels developing beneath the macula.
Doctors do not yet fully understand the causes of AMD. It is known to run in families, so if your parents or siblings have AMD you are more likely to be diagnosed.
In addition, people who smoke are four times more likely to develop AMD than people who have never smoked. The longer you have been smoking, the greater your risk. If you're trying to quit, you can read our stop smoking guide today.
There are several other factors which increase your risk of developing AMD. For example:
- Sunlight - Too much exposure to the sun can be harmful. Make sure you wear UV-absorbing sunglasses if you spend long periods of time out in the sunshine.
- Obesity - Studies suggest that a BMI of 30 or higher increases your risk.
- Alcohol - Drinking more than four units a day over many years may increase the chances of early AMD.
- High Blood Pressure - There is some evidence that suggests high blood pressure and heart disease may increase your risk.
AMD primarily affects the middle of your vision, as opposed to your periphery. Reading may become difficult and colours may appear less vibrant than before. You may also find it hard to recognise people's faces.
Both eyes tend to be affected by AMD eventually, though you may only notice problems in one eye to begin with. Symptoms linked to dry AMD include text becoming blurry, needing a brighter light than normal when reading, and hazy vision.
Symptoms linked to wet AMD include visual distortions such a straight lines appearing wavy, blind spots appearing and hallucinations such as shapes and people that aren't really there.
Though both types of AMD are incurable, wet AMD can be treated with medication to prevent any further degeneration. Dry AMD never causes total blindness, since it does not affect peripheral vision. What's more, visual deterioration caused by dry AMD tends to be very gradual.
Treatment takes the form of practical changes and clinical support. Suggestions to help you with your vision include:
- Magnifying lenses.
- Very bright reading lights.
- Large-print books.
- Screen-reading software to make it easier to use your computer or mobile phone.
There is also some evidence that a diet high in vitamins and substances such as lutein and zeaxanthin can slow the progression of dry AMD. Foods within this category include oranges, carrots, tomatoes, leafy green vegetables and kiwis.
The two main treatment options for wet AMD are:
- Anti-VEGF medication – To prevent the growth of new blood vessels in the eye.
- Laser surgery – To destroy abnormal blood vessels in the eye.
Cataracts are especially common in people over 65. These are cloudy patches which develop on the lens (a small, clear disc inside the eye). Over time, these patches get bigger, causing your vision to become blurry and misty. Eventually this can lead to blindness.
Cataracts commonly appear in both eyes, but not always at the same time. They are treatable with surgery, but untreated cataracts can have a huge affect on your ability to work, drive, and carry out other daily activities. Until 2018, drivers with cataracts in both eyes were required to inform the DVLA of their condition. Now, however, as long as you meet the standards of vision for driving, you can continue to drive a car independently.
Cataracts develop gradually, so symptoms may be difficult to notice for some time. In general, you should make an appointment with an optician if you notice any changes in your vision. Look out for the following symptoms in particular:
- Cloudy, blurred, or dim vision
- Difficulty with vision in low-light or at night time
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Fading of colours
Cataracts aren't usually painful and don't make your eyes red or irritated, but they can be painful if they're in an advanced stage or if you already have another eye condition.
It's not entirely clear what causes you to have cataracts. According to the NHS, the following may increase your risk:
- Family history.
- Eye injuries.
- Steroid abuse.
- Drinking too much alcohol.
In the short-term, if your cataracts aren't too bad, stronger glasses and brighter reading lights may be able to help. Eventually, as your cataracts develop, you will likely need surgery to remove and replace the affected lens. Cataract surgery is in fact the most common operation performed in the UK, with a very high success rate.
Glaucoma is another prominent cause of sight loss. It occurs when the fluid builds up in the eye, putting pressure on the optic nerve and causes a gradual loss of vision. Glaucoma is most common in those in their 70s and 80s.
This eye condition is most common in older people, affecting around one in every 10 people over 75. Ethnicity also plays a part, with people of African, Caribbean or Asian origin at a higher risk of developing the condition. If you have a family history of glaucoma, or have a medical condition like diabetes, hypertension, or sickle cell anaemia, you are more likely to develop glaucoma.
Some forms of glaucoma can destroy vision before symptoms even become noticeable. For this reason, it is very important to make regular appointments with an optician. Glaucoma develops slowly over several years and tends to cause a loss of peripheral vision first. Both eyes are usually affected, although it may become worse in one eye.
Occasionally, the condition can develop suddenly. Look for the following symptoms:
- A red eye.
- Intense eye pain.
- Severe headaches.
- Tenderness around the eyes.
- Seeing rings around lights.
- Blurred vision.
Treatment for glaucoma focuses on preventing further vision loss. Eye drops, laser treatment and surgery can improve the drainage of fluid from your eyes and reduce pressure. This should halt or slow the conditions progress. However, it is sadly not possible to reverse any vision loss that occurred before diagnosis.
People with glaucoma tend to need regular monitoring and appointments to make sure their treatment is working.
This condition is a complication of diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy arises from high blood sugar levels, causing damage to the retina. If left untreated this condition can lead to blindness, although this may take several years.
Reducing the Risk
The NHS says that people with diabetes should have regular eye tests. They offer annual screenings to all people with diabetes over the age of 12. If you have diabetes, you can reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy by controlling your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
Symptoms of this condition don't become obvious for a long time. Early signs of the condition can be found during the aforementioned diabetic eye screening. You should visit your doctor or diabetes care team if you suffer from any of the following symptoms:
- Sudden loss of vision.
- Gradual worsening of your vision.
- Blurs or patches in your vision.
- Eye pain or redness.
- Shapes floating in your field of vision.
Not all cases of diabetic retinopathy require treatment straight away. However, if your eye screening detects significant problems with your vision, you may receive laser treatment or injections of medication into your eyes. In some cases, an operation may be necessary to remove blood and scar tissue from your eyes.
Living with Blindness
Being diagnosed with blindness or a visual impairment can have a huge effect on you and your family. It is important to seek support where you need it, both via specialist clinics and through organisation sch as the Royal National Institute of Blind People.
You may choose to register as visually impaired. Depending on the severity of your vision loss, you'll either be registered as sight impaired or severely sight impaired. An eye specialist will measure your visual acuity and your field of vision beforehand.
Upon registration, you will be given a Certificate of Vision Impairment (CVI), which will be sent to your doctor and to your local social services department. They will then contact you to ask whether or not you want to be added to their register of visually impaired people. After registration, social services will contact you again to arrange for an assessment. This will determine what help you require to remain independent, such as help with cleaning and cooking, or help with mobility and transport.
Registering as visually impaired can also make you eligible for a range of benefits. These could include disability living allowance, reduced fees on public transport, and parking concessions.
Changes to your Home
Most people with visual impairments can continue to live in their own homes. However, you may need to make some changes to your household. The following are just some examples of the equipment that could help you on a daily basis:
- Big Button Phone - This will help you to dial loved ones.
- Computer Accessories - You can purchase big button keyboards, text readers and display software.
- Personal Alarm - If you fall, you can reach for your pendant (usually worn around the neck or on the wrist) and call for help.
- Brighter lighting - Bright light bulbs and adjustable lights are essential for your home, particularly in the kitchen and the stairs.
You may apply for a guide dog to help get around your local area. Besides helping you to stay independent, a guide dog can be a great companion. If you apply for a guide dog, the charity Guide Dogs provides all the essential equipment free of charge. They can also offer financial assistance for things like food or vet costs if you need it.
If a guide dog isn't for you, you can opt to use a long cane. These can help detect objects in your path, making it safer for you to travel. The cane will also make drivers and other pedestrians aware that you have sight loss.
The Access to Work scheme provides advice and support to those who have been diagnosed with visual impairments. They can help you with any equipment and adjustments you may need in order to do your job.
Access to Work also offers a grant to help cover the costs of any equipment or training that you may need, such as voice recognition software or a Braille keyboard. This grant can pay for 80-100% of costs, up to £10,000. How much you receive will depend on the size of the company you work for.
Certain forms of blindness qualify you for VAT exemption when ordering a personal alarm system from Lifeline24. HMRC states that a product which has been “designed or adapted for a disability” qualifies for VAT exemption.
Find out more about the Personal Alarm
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