What is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is a serious eye condition caused by complications of diabetes. Diabetes is characterized by too much sugar in the blood that causes damage throughout the body including progressive damage to the retina — the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye.
Over time, the tiny blood vessels in the retina become damaged and leak blood and other fluids causing tissue to swell. This results in cloudy or blurred vision. If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness.
Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy might include:
- Seeing spots or floaters
- Blurred vision
- Dark or empty spot in the center of your vision
- Difficulty seeing at night
Diagnosis of Diabetic Retinopathy
Because the early stages of diabetic retinopathy have no visual symptoms, it is highly recommended that everyone with diabetes have a comprehensive dilated eye examination every year. During testing, the retina and macula will be evaluated.
Examinations can include:
- Patient history: evaluate vision difficulties, diabetes and other health concerns that could affect vision
- Visual acuity measurements to determine how much central vision has been affected
- Refraction to determine if a new eyeglass prescription is needed
- Evaluation of the ocular structures including retina evaluation through a dilated pupil
- Measurement of the pressure within the eye
- Retinal photography or tomography to document current status of the retina
- Fluorescein angiography to evaluate abnormal blood vessel growth
Treatment of Diabetic Retinopathy
Since uncontrolled blood sugar is the root cause of diabetic retinopathy, one aspect of treatment will be controlling the patient’s blood sugar levels. Diabetics who experience long periods of high blood sugar risk the chance of fluid accumulating in the lens within the eye that controls focus. When sugar levels are better controlled, the onset or progression of diabetic retinopathy can be decreased. This is something patients can follow with the guidance of a nephrologist.
Treatment of diabetic retinopathy varies depending on the stage of the disease. The goal of any treatment will be to slow or stop the progression of the disease. In the early stages of non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, regular monitoring may be the only treatment.
As the disease advances, laser treatment (photocoagulation) might be needed to seal leaking blood vessels or to stop other blood vessels from leaking. An ophthalmologist might recommend injecting medication into the eye in order to decrease inflammation and/or stop the formation of new blood vessels. Advanced cases might even need a surgical procedure to remove and replace vitreous—the fluid in the back of the eye. Proliferative diabetic retinopathy can cause widespread blood vessel growth in the retina. A pattern of scattered laser burns across the retina can be applied to help abnormal vessels shrink and disappear, however, some side vision may be lost in order to safeguard central vision.
To learn more about diabetic retinopathy, visit the American Academy of Ophthalmology website.