Health Information

Diabetic Retinopathy

Simulation photograph: normal vision Simulation photograph: diabetic retinopathy

What eye problems are often associated with diabetes?

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye problems that people with diabetes may face as complications. All can cause severe vision loss or even blindness. Diabetic eye disease often can be treated before vision loss occurs. All people with diabetes should have a dilated eye exam at least once a year.

Diabetic eye diseases include:

  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Cataract
  • Glaucoma

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common eye disease in persons with diabetes.

Other Diabetic Eye Problems

People with diabetes are also at risk for other diabetic eye diseases, such as:

Cataract. A clouding or opaque area develops over the lens of the eye--an area that is normally transparent. As this thickening occurs, it prevents light rays from passing through the lens and focusing on the retina-- the light sensitive tissue lining located in the back of the eye.

Persons with diabetes are twice as likely to develop a cataract.

Glaucoma. Increase in fluid pressure inside the eye that leads to optic nerve damage and loss of vision.

People with diabetes are also twice as likely as other adults to develop glaucoma.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. It is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina. In some people with diabetic retinopathy, retinal blood vessels may swell and leak fluid, while in others, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. These changes may result in vision loss or blindness.

Diabetic retinopathy cannot be completely avoided, but the risk can be greatly reduced. Better control of blood sugar level slows the onset and progression of retinopathy and lessens the need for laser surgery for severe retinopathy.

What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

There may be no symptoms or pain in the early stages of the diabetic retinopathy, and vision may not change until the disease progresses.

A condition called macular edema may occur when the macula, a part of the retina, swells from the leaking fluid and causes blurred vision. When new vessels grow on the surface of the retina, they can bleed (hemorrhage) into the eye, blocking vision.

Who is at risk for diabetic retinopathy?

Anyone with diabetes is at risk for diabetic retinopathy. The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely it becomes that he or she will develop diabetic retinopathy.

Can diabetic retinopathy be prevented?

Although diabetic retinopathy cannot be prevented, the risk of developing it can be reduced by:

  • Having a dilated eye examination once a year
  • Strictly managing diabetes by:
    • Taking medications as directed
    • Using insulin as directed
    • Eating appropriate foods to manage blood sugar level
    • Exercising to lower and help the body use blood sugar
    • Testing blood-sugar levels regularly
    • Testing urine for ketone levels regularly

How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?

Picture of a standard eye chart

In addition to a complete medical history and eye examination, your eye care professional may perform the following tests to diagnose diabetic retinopathy:

  • Visual acuity test. The common eye chart test (see right), which measures vision ability at various distances.
  • Pupil dilation. The pupil is widened with eyedrops to allow a close-up examination of the eye's retina.
  • Tonometry. A standard test to determine the fluid pressure inside the eye.
  • Ophthalmoscopy. A doctor performs a detailed examination of the retina using a special magnifying glass.

What is the treatment for diabetic retinopathy?

Specific treatment will be determined by your doctor(s) based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

According to the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, even people with advanced retinopathy have a 95 percent chance of keeping their vision when they seek treatment before the retina becomes severely damaged. Treatment for diabetic retinopathy may include:

  • Laser surgery. Often used to treat macular edema and proliferative retinopathy; involves shrinking the abnormal blood vessels, or sealing the leaking ones.
  • Vitrectomy. A type of procedure that involves removing the cloudy vitreous (the clear, jelly-like substance that fills the center of the eye) and replacing it with a salt solution. Vitrectomies are particularly effective in persons with insulin-dependent diabetes, who may be at a greater risk of blindness due to a hemorrhage in the eye.

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