What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

In people with diabetes, high blood sugar levels can damage and change blood vessels in the retina, the back of the eye that sense light and helps send images to the brain. A healthy retina is necessary for good vision. In some people with diabetic retinopathy, these blood vessels in the retina may swell and leak fluid. In other, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. These new blood vessels can bleed into the eye and block vision. Diabetic retinopathy usually affects both eyes.

The chance of getting retinopathy and having a more severe form is greater when:

  • You have had diabetes for a long time
  • Your diabetes has been poorly controlled

During a dilated diabetic eye exam, your ophthalmologist will see:

  • Early Stages (Nonproliferative Retinopathy): blood vessels in the eye that are larger in certain spots (microaneurysms), blood vessels that are blocked, and/or small amounts of bleeding (retinal hemorrhages) and fluid leaking into the retina
  • Advanced Stages (Proliferative Retinopathy): New blood vessels starting to grow in the eye that are fragile and can bleed and/or small scars forming on the retina and in other parts of the eye

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

There are typically no symptoms and no pain in the early stages. As the disease progresses and damage begins to happen, visual symptoms will begin to appear. Common symptoms are:

  • Blurred vision and slow loss of vision
  • Floaters
  • Shadows or missing areas of vision
  • Trouble seeing at night

How is Diabetic Retinopathy treated?

People with early stage (nonproliferative) of diabetic retinopathy may not need treatment. However, they should be closed followed by ophthalmologist and should control levels of blood sugar, blood pressure and blood cholestrol.
Once your ophthalmologist notices new blood vessels growing in your retina (proliferative), treatment is usually needed.
Several procedures or surgeries are the main treatments:

  • Scatter Retinal Laser treatment – laser creates small burns in the retina where there are abnormal blood vessels. It is used to keep vessels from leaking or to get rid of abnormal, fragile vessels.
  • Intravitreal Injections – steroid drugs are injected into the eye to prevent abnormal vessels from growing
  • Vitrectomy – a surgical procedure where the vitreous gel that is clouded with blood is removed

Although these treatments have high success rates in reducing vision loss, they do not cure diabetic retinopathy. You may need treatment more than once to protect your sight.

To learn more: Facts about Diabetic Eye Disease/Diabetic Retinopathy from the National Eye Institute