What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

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People with diabetes are at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, a condition that damages the retina within the eye. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely it is that you may experience this complication.

A healthy retina allows your vision to work properly. The retina is the light-sensitive structure on the inner back wall of the eye. When light enters your eye, an image of what's in your field of vision appears on the retina. The retina transmits these light signals through the optic nerve to the brain, which then translates the images into visuals your brain can understand.

A network of tiny blood vessels keeps the retina nurtured and working well. When someone with diabetes has uncontrolled blood sugar levels, it may damage small blood vessels throughout the body, including within the eye. The retina may not receive enough blood flow to function well, leading to vision loss. In addition, the blood vessels may leak small amounts of blood into the eye, blocking vision. In some cases, abnormal blood vessels may form within the eye, which may leak blood or form scar tissue, both of which may contribute to loss of vision.

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What Are Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy?

At first, people who develop diabetic retinopathy may not notice any vision changes because the symptoms are silent in the condition's early stages.

When diabetic retinopathy becomes more advanced, it may affect vision in a number of ways:

  • Your vision may appear blurry

  • You may notice floaters in your field of vision

  • Your night vision may worsen, or you may begin to see colors less vividly

  • You may see dark spots or unexpected blank areas within your field of vision

If you have diabetes and notice any of these vision problems, call your eye doctor for an appointment to assess your eye health.

Diabetes Find an Exam

How Do Eye Doctors Diagnose Diabetic Retinopathy?

An eye doctor can assess your retinal health during a comprehensive eye exam. The doctor will dilate your pupils with eye drops to better examine the inner structures of your eyes.

The doctor may perform a test known as optical coherence tomography, which takes images of the retina to assess its thickness to check for the presence of diabetic retinopathy.

Another test, called a fluorescein angiography, can help the eye doctor view blood vessels within your eye.  During this procedure, the doctor injects dye into your arm, which travels through blood vessels and reaches your eyes. The dye appears bright yellow, which makes it easy for the doctor to see the tiny blood vessels in your retina. Using a specialized camera, the doctor takes images of your eyes to see if the blood vessel activity suggests diabetic retinopathy.

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What Are the Treatments for Diabetic Retinopathy?

In early stages of the disease, managing your diabetes may be enough to keep diabetic retinopathy under control. It's important to see your eye doctor regularly for a dilated eye exam to keep track of any possible changes.

When diabetic retinopathy affects your ability to see, treatment may help to preserve your remaining vision. Some people receive medication known as anti-VEGF therapy, which stops blood vessels from leaking fluid within the eye; it's injected into the eye after the eye is numbed. Laser treatments may seal leaky blood vessels or minimize the presence of new, abnormal blood vessels. If scar tissue or blood builds up within the eye, it may be removed during surgery.

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How Should People with Diabetes Care for Their Eyes?

After you've been diagnosed with diabetes, it is important that you take any medication that your doctor prescribes to help keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range. See an eye doctor at least once a year for a dilated eye exam to maintain your eye health and catch signs of diabetic retinopathy early.

Good nutrition and regular physical activity may help to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range. Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise to lower your risk of diabetic retinopathy or to prevent existing retinopathy from becoming worse.

Diabetic retinopathy may lead to vision loss or blindness, but these complications are usually preventable with self-care and an eye doctor's advice.