Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes caused by high blood sugar levels that damage the back of the eye (retina). If left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause blindness. You can find more information below.
What is diabetic retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition that can cause vision loss and blindness in people with diabetes , and it affects the blood vessels in the retina (the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of your eye).
If you have diabetes, it’s important to have a comprehensive extended eye exam at least once a year. Diabetic retinopathy may not have any symptoms at first, but diagnosing the condition early can help you take steps to protect your vision.
Managing your diabetes – by staying physically active, eating healthy, and taking your medication – can help you prevent or delay vision loss.
What causes diabetic retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is caused by high blood sugar due to diabetes. Over time, having too much sugar in your blood can damage your retina. The retina is the part of your eye that detects light and sends signals to your brain through a nerve (optic nerve) at the back of your eye.
Diabetes damages blood vessels throughout the body. The damage to your eyes begins when sugar blocks the tiny blood vessels leading to your retina, causing them to leak fluid or bleed.
To compensate for these clogged blood vessels, your eyes then enlarge new blood vessels that don’t work well. These new blood vessels can leak and bleed easily.
Who is at risk?
Anyone with any type of diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy. These include those with type 1 diabetes , type 2 diabetes , and gestational diabetes (diabetes that can develop during pregnancy).
The longer you have diabetes, the greater your risk. For example, 2 in 5 Americans with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy. The good news is that you can reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy by controlling your diabetes.
Women with diabetes who become pregnant – or women who develop gestational diabetes – have an increased risk of developing this condition. If you have diabetes and are pregnant, it is a good idea to have a comprehensive eye exam as soon as possible. You can ask your doctor if you will need additional eye exams during your pregnancy.
What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?
In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, there are usually no symptoms. Some people notice changes in their vision, such as reading or seeing distant objects. These changes can come and go.
In the later stages of the disease, blood vessels in the retina begin to bleed into the vitreous (gel-like fluid in the center of the blood). If this happens, you may see dark, floating spots or lines that resemble spider webs. Sometimes spots clear up on their own – but it’s important to get treatment right away. Without treatment, bleeding may recur, worsen, or cause scarring.
Diabetic retinopathy can also lead to the following other serious eye conditions:
- Diabetic macular edema (DME): Over time, about half of people with diabetic retinopathy will develop DME. DME occurs when blood vessels in the retina cause swelling in the macula (part of the retina). If you have DME, your vision will be blurred due to the extra fluid in your macula.
- Neovascular glaucoma: It can cause abnormal blood vessels to grow from the retina and prevent fluid from flowing out of the eye. This causes a type of glaucoma.
- Retinal detachment: It can cause scars to form behind your eyes.
How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?
Ophthalmologists can check for diabetic retinopathy as part of a dilated eye exam. The exam is simple and painless, your doctor will give you eye drops to dilate your pupils and then check your eyes for diabetes-related retinopathy and other eye problems.
If you have diabetes, it is very important to have regular eye exams. If you develop this condition, early treatment can stop the damage and prevent blindness.
If your eye doctor thinks you may have severe retinopathy or DME, they may perform a test called a fluorescein angiogram . This test allows the doctor to see pictures of the blood vessels in your retina.
How is diabetic retinopathy treated?
In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, your eye doctor will likely monitor the impact of the disease on your eyes. Some people with diabetic retinopathy need an extended eye exam as often as every 2 to 4 months.
It’s important to start treatment right away, especially if you experience changes in your vision in the later stages. While it won’t cause any damage to your vision, treatment can prevent your vision from getting worse. It’s also important to take steps to control your diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
- Injections: Medicines called needle therapy anti-VEGF drugs can slow or reverse the disease. Other medications called corticosteroids may also help.
- Laser therapy: To reduce swelling in your retina, ophthalmologists may use lasers to shrink blood vessels and stop leakage.
- Eye surgery: If your retina is bleeding a lot or you have a lot of scarring in your eye, your eye doctor may recommend a type of surgery called a vitrectomy .
Can diabetic retinopathy be prevented?
Managing your diabetes is the best way to reduce your risk of developing this condition. This means keeping your blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. You can do this by doing regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet, and carefully following your doctor’s instructions for insulin or other diabetes medications.
You will need a special test called the A1c test to help check your blood sugar . This test shows your average blood sugar level over a 3-month period. You can talk to your doctor about lowering your A1c levels to prevent or manage diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetes, along with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, increases your risk of developing this condition. So regularly checking your blood pressure and cholesterol can also help reduce your risk of vision loss.