What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetes damages the small blood vessels in the retina (the lining at the back of the eye that senses light). Diabetic retinophathy can lead to poor vision and even blindness.
Two types of retinopathy exist, each varying progressively in severity:
Some people with retinopathy will also experience macular edema, a condition in which fluid leaks into the macula, the part of the eye responsible for sharp vision. In these instances the macula swells with fluid, creating blurred vision.
What Causes Diabetic Retinopathy?
Damage to the tiny blood vessels of the retina cause retinopathy. The damage can cause blood vessels to weaken and swell, or get clogged. Over time, if left untreated, retinopathy may cause blood to seep into the vitreous, making it more difficult for light to reach the retina.
How Do You Know If You Have Diabetic Retinopathy?
Only an eye exam by an eye care professional can discover whether you have diabetic retinopathy.
Not everyone with retinal damage experiences symptoms. Often, though, one of the first symptoms of diabetic retinopathy is poor night vision.
Other symptoms may include:
If you experience any of these symptoms, let your doctor know right away.
How Do You Treat Diabetic Retinopathy?
Only a small percentage of people with diabetic retinopathy will experience serious vision problems. Getting an annual eye exam offers the best protection against vision loss by detecting problems early, thus making treatment more effective.
Treatment during the non-proliferative stages of retinopathy involves controlling your blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Of course, you'll still need an eye exam each year, and perhaps more often.
Although nothing cures proliferative retinopathy, treatment can help. And when the treatment is timely, there is less than a five percent chance of becoming blind (in five years).
Treatment involves a type of laser surgery called scatter laser treatment that shrinks the newly grown, abnormal blood vessels. The treatment might cause some loss of peripheral vision, but it can save the rest of your sight. Treatment works best before the abnormal vessels have begun to bleed - a good reason to ensure you get an annual eye exam.
If the bleeding has started, laser treatment might still be an option. With severe bleeding, however, treatment might consist of a vitrectomy. This surgery removes blood from the center of your eye, thus minimizing damage caused by the disease.
How Do You Treat Macular Edema?
Like proliferative retinopathy, macular edema also uses laser surgery for treatment. The surgery slows down the fluid leak and reduces the amount of fluid in the retina. You might need more than one surgery.
What Complications Develop With Diabetic Retinopathy?
In addition to the risk of blindness from untreated retinopathy, other complications exist as well.
Although anyone can get glaucoma (a build-up of pressure within the eye), complications from retinopathy can increase the risk. If abnormal vessels begin to grow in the colored part of the eye (the iris), glaucoma may result. Daily eye drops can help reduce pressure in the eye.
Another complication can happen if the new blood vessels in the retina cause scar tissue to grow. This can detach the retina from the back of the eye. If this happens, you might see flashing lights or floating spots, or feel as if you are only seeing part of what you're looking at. Should this happen, see a doctor immediately.
How Can You Prevent Diabetic Retinopathy?
If you have just been diagnosed with diabetes, get your eyes examined as soon as possible. The doctor can check for any early damage and get a baseline reading of your visual health.
Because you can treat retinopathy when detected in a timely manner, and because it seldom has symptoms, it is imperative that you get a yearly eye exam and more frequently if your doctor suggests it.
Reviewed by Clara Schneider MS, RD, RN, CDE, LDN - 05/13