Diabetic Retinopathy Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments

diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease caused by diabetes. When you have diabetes, it can affect many systems in your body, including your eyes, so people with diabetes need to get regular eye exams. Damaged blood vessels and abnormal new ones from diabetes can cause vision loss.

High blood sugar levels can cause damage to the blood vessels in the retina. These blood vessels can swell and leak, or they can close and cut off the blood supply. Sometimes new, abnormal blood vessels grow on the retina. All of these changes can cause decreased vision. Read on to learn more.

What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition that can cause vision loss and blindness in people with 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 crucial to get comprehensive, dilated eye exams once a year. Diabetic retinopathy may not have symptoms at first, but catching it early can help you get treatments 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.


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How Diabetes Affects Eye Health

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, the optic nerve.

Diabetes damages blood vessels all over the body, but the damage to your eyes starts when sugar blocks the tiny blood vessels that go to your retina, causing them to leak fluid and bleed. To make up for these blocked blood vessels, your eyes grow new blood vessels that don’t work well. These new blood vessels can leak or bleed easily.

Non-Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (NPDR)

Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy is the early stage of diabetic eye disease, and many people with diabetes have it. Tiny blood vessels leak, causing the retina to swell. The macula, a small area in the center of the retina, also swells. When the macula swells, it is called macular edema. This is the most common reason why people with diabetes lose their vision.

With NDPR, blood vessels in the retina can also close off. This is called macular ischemia. When that happens, blood cannot reach the macula, and sometimes tiny particles called exudates can form in the retina. This can affect your vision as well.

NDPR causes blurred vision.

Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (PDR)

Proliferative diabetic retinopathy is the more advanced stage of diabetic eye disease, and it happens when the retina starts growing new blood vessels. This is called neovascularization. These fragile new blood vessels often bleed into the vitreous, the jelly-like substance that fills the middle of the eye. If the blood vessels only bleed a little, you might see a few dark floaters in your vision. If they bleed a lot, it might block all vision.


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Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

You can have diabetic retinopathy and not know it because it often has no symptoms in its early stages. As it gets worse, you may notice the following symptoms, which usually affect both eyes: 

  • Seeing an increasing amount of floaters
  • Having blurred vision
  • Having vision that sometimes changes from blurry to clear
  • Seeing blank or dark areas in your field of vision
  • Having poor night vision
  • Noticing colors appear faded or washed out
  • Losing vision

Diabetic Retinopathy Diagnosis & Tests

Diabetic retinopathy can be diagnosed through a comprehensive eye exam. Testing will emphasize evaluating the retina and the macula, and it may include:

  • Collecting patient history to determine difficulties with vision, the presence of diabetes, and any other health concerns that may be affecting your vision.
  • Visual acuity measurements to determine how much central vision has been affected.
  • Refraction test to determine if a new eyeglass prescription is needed
  • Evaluation of the ocular structures, including the examination of the retina through a dilated pupil
  • Measurement of the pressure within the eye (IOP)

Additional testing may include retinal photography or tomography to document the current condition of the retina and fluorescein angiography to evaluate the growth of abnormal blood vessels.

Treatment Options for Diabetic Retinopathy

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy varies depending on the extent of the disease. First and foremost, you can help prevent or slow the development of diabetic retinopathy by managing your diabetes and taking prescribed medications, eating healthy, exercising, controlling high blood pressure, and avoiding alcohol and smoking.

Earlier treatments include injections of medication into the eye, while more advanced treatments can include laser treatment and surgery.

  • Injections: Injections of medication in the eye such as anti-VEGF medication are intended to discourage the formation of abnormal blood vessels, reduce swelling of the macula, and can help slow the damage caused by diabetic retinopathy. Injections of steroid medicines can also help reduce macular swelling.
  • Laser Treatment: If abnormal blood vessels have already formed and are leaking blood and fluid into the retina, laser treatment (photocoagulation) can stop this leakage and reduce macular edema. In this procedure, a laser beam of light creates small burns in areas of the retina with abnormal blood vessels to try to seal the leaks. Widespread blood vessel growth in the retina, which occurs in proliferative diabetic retinopathy, can be treated by creating a pattern of scattered laser burns across the retina. This causes the abnormal blood vessels to shrink and disappear. Some side vision may be lost during this procedure in order to protect the central vision. More than one treatment may be needed.
  • Vitrectomy: For more advanced stages of the disease, a surgical procedure called a vitrectomy may be required. During this surgery, your eye doctor will remove vitreous gel and blood from leaking blood vessels in the back of your eye. This will allow light rays to properly focus on the retina again. Scar tissue may also be removed from the retina during this procedure.

Choose Toledo LASIK for Your Eye Health

If you have diabetes or another chronic health condition, you should get regular, comprehensive eye exams to protect your vision.

The dedicated eye care experts at Toledo LASIK can help you prevent, slow, and treat diabetic retinopathy with medications and surgical options. Our doctors can also help you achieve clearer vision with advanced vision correction services.

Don’t wait until you start experiencing symptoms. Call us at 419-910-3794 or contact us online to schedule your appointment today.


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