Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes that affects the eyes. It’s caused by damage to the blood vessels of the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye (retina). Over time, these damaged blood vessels can leak fluid and cause swelling of the retina, which can eventually lead to vision loss.
You might not have symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. As the condition progresses, you might develop:
- Spots or dark strings floating in your vision (floaters)
- Blurred vision
- Fluctuating vision
- Dark or empty areas in your vision
- Vision loss
When to see an eye doctor
Careful management of your diabetes is the best way to prevent vision loss. If you have diabetes, see your eye doctor for a yearly eye exam with dilation — even if your vision seems fine.
Developing diabetes when pregnant (gestational diabetes) or having diabetes before becoming pregnant can increase your risk of diabetic retinopathy. If you’re pregnant, your eye doctor might recommend additional eye exams throughout your pregnancy.
Contact your eye doctor right away if your vision changes suddenly or becomes blurry, spotty or hazy.
Treatment for diabetic retinopathy includes:
- Managing and controlling blood sugar levels: This is crucial in slowing down the progression of the condition and preventing damage to blood vessels in the eye.
- Laser treatment: In some cases, laser treatment may be recommended to seal leaking blood vessels or shrink abnormal ones. This can help improve vision and prevent further vision loss.
- Surgery: In more advanced stages, surgery may be necessary. Surgical procedures can involve removing blood from the eye or repairing damaged retinal tissue. However, it’s important to note that these procedures may not be able to completely restore lost vision.
- Medications: Your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat any underlying conditions that may be contributing to diabetic retinopathy, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Over time, too much sugar in your blood can lead to the blockage of the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina, cutting off its blood supply. As a result, the eye attempts to grow new blood vessels. However, these new blood vessels don’t develop properly and can leak easily.
There are two types of diabetic retinopathy:
- Early diabetic retinopathy. Nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) is a common form of diabetic retinopathy where new blood vessels don’t grow. NPDR weakens the walls of blood vessels in the retina, causing tiny bulges that may leak fluid and blood. This condition can progress from mild to severe as more blood vessels become blocked. In some cases, retinal blood vessel damage leads to fluid buildup (edema) in the macula, resulting in decreased vision. Treatment is necessary to prevent permanent vision loss. Learn more about nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy and its management.
- Advanced diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy can progress to this more severe type, known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy. In this type, damaged blood vessels close off, causing the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels in the retina. These new blood vessels are fragile and can leak into the clear, jellylike substance that fills the center of your eye (vitreous). Eventually, scar tissue from the growth of new blood vessels can cause the retina to detach from the back of your eye. If the new blood vessels interfere with the normal flow of fluid out of the eye, pressure can build in the eyeball. This buildup can damage the nerve that carries images from your eye to your brain (optic nerve), resulting in glaucoma.
In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, the walls of the blood vessels in your retina weaken. Tiny bulges protrude from the vessel walls, sometimes leaking or oozing fluid and blood into the retina. Tissues in the retina may swell, producing white spots in the retina. As diabetic retinopathy progresses, new blood vessels may grow and threaten your vision.
There are steps you can take to prevent diabetic retinopathy from developing or worsening:
- Keep your blood sugar levels under control
- Monitor and manage other health conditions, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Quit smoking if you are a smoker
- Get regular eye exams to detect any signs of retinopathy early on
By following these preventive measures and receiving prompt treatment, individuals with diabetes can reduce their risk of developing diabetic retinopathy and preserve their vision. Although there may not be a cure for this condition, ongoing management and care can help slow down its progression and prevent severe vision loss. Remember to always communicate with your doctor and follow their recommendations for managing diabetes and diabetic retinopathy. With proper care, individuals with this condition can maintain good eye health and quality of life.