Diabetic Retinopathy


What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy affects people with diabetes. The leading cause of blindness in American adults, it is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina.

How does Diabetic Retinopathy damage the eye?

This diabetic eye disease weakens the small blood vessels in the retina. Retinal blood vessels can break down, leak, or become blocked – affecting and impairing vision over time. In some people with diabetic retinopathy, damage to the eye can occur when abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina.

Who is at Risk?

Diabetic retinopathy is a problem linked to diabetes. Anyone with diabetes is at risk for diabetic retinopathy.
Risk Factors include:

Both younger and older people with diabetes are at risk for diabetic retinopathy. Some of the most severe cases of diabetic retinopathy occur in people who were diagnosed with diabetes at a very young age after they have had the disease for many years.

Duration of the Disease
The longer a person has diabetes, the greater the chance of retinopathy. Virtually everyone who was diagnosed with diabetes before age 30 has diabetic retinopathy within 15 years of their diagnosis. About three quarters of those who are diagnosed after age 30 have diabetic retinopathy within 15 years of diagnosis.

Blood Sugar Control
Poor blood sugar control is one of the main causes of diabetic retinopathy. If you have diabetes, you can lower the risk of vision loss by carefully monitoring and controlling blood sugar levels. You may be able to slow the onset and progression of retinopathy and decrease the need for surgery by controlling blood sugar levels through a healthy diet, insulin and other drugs.

Quitting smoking can reduce risk for diabetic retinopathy

Alcohol and diabetes are a dangerous combination for many reasons, including an increased risk of diabetic retinopathy

Doctors frequently recommend that people with diabetes take a daily aspirin to help lower their risk of heart and circulatory disease. Aspirin does not appear to increase the risk of diabetic retinopathy. People with diabetes should feel comfortable taking aspirin as recommended by their doctor.

High blood pressure increases the risk of eye disease, as well as heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. It may be necessary to change diet and exercise habits or take medication to keep blood pressure under control.

While scientists are still unsure why pregnancy seems to increase a woman’s risk of developing, or accelerating, diabetic retinopathy. Pregnant women with diabetes should see their eye doctor during their pregnancy.

Renal Disease
Kidney disease is a major complication of diabetes. The earlier kidney disease is diagnosed, the better. Individuals with diabetes must have their urine tested regularly for early signs of kidney disease.

What are the symptoms?

Often, there are no symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. Vision may seem unchanged until the disease becomes severe. Eventually, the vision of a person with diabetic retinopathy may become blurred or blocked entirely. But even in more advanced cases the disease may progress without symptoms for a long time. That is why regular eye exams are so important for people with diabetes.

How do eye doctors test for Diabetic Retinopathy?
Dilated Eye Exam

Fluorescein Angiography

The blood vessels in the eyes cannot be distinguished from the surrounding structure of the eye in conventional imaging techniques. Doctors can however document potential damage caused by diabetic retinopathy by injecting a substance that “lights up” the veins. This simple procedure provides a clear picture of the retinal blood vessels for diagnosis.

What are the stages of Diabetic Retinopathy?

The early stage of this disease is called nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy. In this stage blood vessels swell and sometimes bulge or balloon (aneurysm). The vessels may leak fluid that can build up in the retina and cause swelling. This condition is called macular edema, and it changes the vision of individuals with the disease. The blurriness is sometimes compared to trying to look through water.

The fluid deposits that build up in the retina may clear up on their own, but fatty deposits sometimes remain that can affect vision. Later, vessels may begin to bleed inside the retina.

In many cases when the small blood vessels close down, new, unhealthy blood vessels grow. These unhealthy blood vessels are not able to feed the retina. This stage of the disease is known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

The unwanted blood vessels can grow on the back of the vitreous. Vitreous is the clear jelly-like fluid that fills most of the eyeball. vessels may also bleed into the vitreous. This bleeding may cause dark spots (floaters), strands that look like cobwebs, or clouded vision.

As vessels heal, scar tissue may also grow. The scar tissue sometimes pulls the retina away from the back of the eye. As a result, the retina can tear or come completely loose from the eye. A detached or torn retina may result in serious loss of sight or even blindness.

Description: In nonproliferative retinopathy, a slight deterioration in the small blood vessels of the retina, portions of the vessels may swell and leak fluid into the surrounding retinal tissue.

Description: Proliferative retinopathy, an advanced form of diabetic retinopathy, occurs when abnormal new blood vessels and scar tissue form on the surface of the retina.

Description: Diabetic macular edema (abnormal accumulation of fluid, fat and proteins in the macular part of the retina).


Macular edema – occurs when fluid building up in the retina causes swelling and affects vision.

Nonproliferative – diabetic retinopathy occurring without the growth of unhealthy blood vessels (neovascularization or new vessels)

Proliferative – diabeticic retinopathy occurring when the breakdown of retinal blood vessels leads to the growth of new, unhealthy blood vessels (neovascularization).

What treatments are available for Diabetic Retinopathy?

Doctors have a range of options for treating individuals who have been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy.

Photocoagulation (Laser surgery)

A common treatment for some forms of retinopathy is photocoagulation. In this procedure, the doctor uses a laser to seal leaking or bleeding vessels. During the treatment, the laser beam is carefully aimed at problem areas.

In advanced cases of diabetic retinopathy, more laser treatment may be needed. “Pan-retinal photocoagulation” uses a laser beam to treat many places on the retina. This technique helps prevent the growth of new, unhealthy blood vessels. Note: laser treatments are not used for every case of diabetic retinopathy.


Another treatment for some advanced cases of diabetic retinopathy is vitrectomy. It is used when there is unhealthy vessel growth and bleeding. During this operation, the doctor uses a small suction tool to take out the vitreous jelly containing blood and scar tissue strands inside the eye. At the same time, the doctor uses fluid to replace the vitreous in the patient’s eye.

Treatment Research

Scientists are still working toward a better understanding of diabetic retinopathy, and new treatment options are on the horizon. In the meantime, early detection of retinopathy and close watch by an eye doctor are major goals for the successful treatment of patients with diabetes.

People with diabetes need to know that dangerous changes in the retina often happen before they notice changes in their sight. All people with diabetes should have a professional eye exam at least once a year. The eye doctor can decide if you need more frequent exams. People with diabetes should also get regular medical care to control their diabetes.