Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition that can cause vision loss and blindness in people who have diabetes. It affects blood vessels in the retina (the light-sensitive layer of tissue in the back of your eye). If you have diabetes, it’s important for you to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Diabetic retinopathy may not have any symptoms at first — but finding it early can help you take steps to protect your vision.
Managing your diabetes by staying physically active, eating healthy, and taking your medicine can also help you prevent or delay vision loss.
What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?
The early stages of diabetic retinopathy usually don’t have any symptoms. Some people notice changes in their vision, like trouble reading or seeing faraway objects. These changes may come and go. In later stages of the disease, blood vessels in the retina start to bleed into the vitreous (gel-like fluid in the center of the eye). If this happens, you may see dark, floating spots or streaks that look like cobwebs. Sometimes, the spots clear up on their own but it’s important to get treatment right away. Without treatment, the bleeding can happen again, get worse, or cause scarring.
What causes diabetic retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is caused by high blood sugar due to diabetes. Over time, having too much sugar in your blood can damage your retina — the part of your eye that detects light and sends signals to your brain through a nerve in the back of your eye (optic nerve).
Diabetes damages blood vessels all over the body. The damage to your eyes starts when sugar blocks the tiny blood vessels that go to your retina, causing them to leak fluid or bleed. To make up for these blocked blood vessels, your eyes then grow new blood vessels that don’t work well. These new blood vessels can leak or bleed easily.
How will my eye doctor check for diabetic retinopathy?
Eye doctors can check for diabetic retinopathy as part of a dilated eye exam. The exam is simple and painless, your doctor will give you some eye drops to dilate (widen) your pupil and then check your eyes for diabetic retinopathy and other eye problems. If you have diabetes, it’s very important to get regular eye exams. If you do develop diabetic retinopathy, early treatment can stop the damage and prevent blindness. If your eye doctor thinks you may have severe diabetic retinopathy or DME, they may do a test called a Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) . This test lets the doctor see pictures of the blood vessels in your retina.
What’s the treatment for diabetic retinopathy and DME?
In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, your eye doctor will probably just keep track of how your eyes are doing. Some people with diabetic retinopathy may need a comprehensive dilated eye exam as often as every 2 to 4 months.
In later stages, it’s important to start treatment right away, especially if you experience changes in your vision. While it won’t undo any damage to your vision, treatment can stop your vision from getting worse. It’s also important to take steps to control your diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
Injections. Medicines called anti-VEGF drugs can slow down or reverse diabetic retinopathy. Other medicines, called corticosteroids, can also help.
Laser treatment. To reduce swelling in your retina, eye doctors can use lasers to make the blood vessels shrink and stop leaking.