What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic Retinopathy is a common complication of type 1 or type 2 diabetes and a leading cause of blindness in American adults. At first, diabetic retinopathy may cause no symptoms or only mild vision problems, but it can increase the risk of glaucoma and cataracts and may eventually result in blindness.

Who gets diabetic retinopathy?

It can happen to anyone who has type 1 or type 2 diabetes. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you are to develop diabetic retinopathy. In fact, approximately 25% of all adult diabetics have some form of this disease. 90% of all diabetics will be affected by it during their lifetime. The disease can happen to anyone who has diabetes or those are at high risk of contracting diabetes, such as people who:

  • Have poor control of their blood sugar level
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have high cholesterol
  • Are pregnant
  • Are African American or Hispanic
  • Smoke

What causes diabetic retinopathy?

In some people, diabetes causes the blood vessels of the eye to become weak, swell, and leak fluid. In others, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina.

What are the symptoms?

Diabetic retinopathy usually affects both eyes. There are no outward physical signs of the disease. As the condition progresses, warning signs of diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Spots floating in your vision
  • Blurred vision
  • Dark streaks or a red film that blocks your vision
  • Poor night vision
  • Vision loss

Diagnosing diabetic retinopathy

Eye exams are critical to discovering this disease in its early stages and preventing against its progression. Your doctor will likely use a dilated eye exam in which he or she dilates your pupils using eye drops and looks for:

  • Abnormal blood vessels
  • Swelling, blood, or fatty deposits in the retina
  • Growth of new blood vessels and scar tissue
  • Bleeding in the clear, jelly-like substance that fills the center of the eye (vitreous)
  • Retinal detachment
  • Abnormalities in your optic nerve

Other tests may include:

  • Fluorescein angiography, in which your doctor injects a special dye into your arm and takes pictures as the dye circulates through your eyes. Your doctor uses the images to determine the extent of the retinal blood vessel leakage.
  • Optical coherence tomography, an imaging test that provides cross-sectional images show the thickness of the retina, which helps determine whether fluid has leaked into retinal tissue. Later, OCT exams can be used to monitor how treatment is working.
  • Ultrasound to diagnose retinal detachment.

Treating diabetic retinopathy

In the beginning, if retinopathy only affects the peripheral retina, your doctor may choose to simply monitor it. As the disease progresses and begins to affect your central vision, you may require laser treatment to seal blood vessels and reduce further vision loss. During advanced stages of the disease, lasers can stop the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels. These treatments are frequently done on an outpatient basis.


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