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What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2024 | Last updated: April 2024

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease caused by diabetes. The retina is a part of the eye located on the back wall of the eye. It is the part of the eye that captures light and turns it into signals that the brain can read. The brain then turns those signals into what you see.1,2

The retina is also one of our body parts most sensitive to the changes caused by diabetes. High blood glucose levels cause the retina’s delicate blood vessels to swell and leak. The blood vessels can also close up, which blocks blood flow to that part of the eye. Sometimes new vessels grow on the retina. Any of these symptoms can make your vision worse or even cause blindness.1

Most people with diabetic retinopathy have no symptoms until the disease is advanced. This is why regular eye exams are important for people with diabetes. Early diagnosis and treatment can dramatically slow down the damage to your vision.1

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How common is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of vision loss worldwide. It becomes more common the longer a person has diabetes and the higher their blood glucose is over time. Plus, a person is more likely to develop diabetic retinopathy if they also have:3

  • High blood pressure
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Certain kinds of kidney disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Pregnancy

In general, the better a person is at managing their blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol, the less damage they will have to the retina. The worse a person’s blood sugar control is, the more likely they are to develop severe diabetic retinopathy.3

Signs of diabetic retinopathy

Most people do not have any symptoms of diabetic retinopathy until it is at a serious stage. Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include:1

  • Seeing more floaters ((spots that drift through your vision) than usual
  • Blurry vision
  • Vision that changes from blurry to clear
  • Seeing blank or dark areas
  • Trouble seeing at night
  • Seeing colors that seem washed out or faded
  • Trouble seeing

Because these symptoms do not appear until late in the disease, it is important to get regular dilated eye exams if you have diabetes. Regular eye check-ups and treatment can slow the disease.

Complications of diabetic retinopathy

Having diabetic retinopathy also puts you at greater risk of developing other serious eye diseases, including:2,3

Treatments for diabetic retinopathy

As a first step, your doctor will recommend you control your blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels as well as possible. In some cases, good blood glucose control can even bring back some of your vision. You will also need regular eye exams to track your eye health and keep your vision as sharp as possible.1-3

Diabetic retinopathy is also treated with medicine and surgery.1

Medicines used to treat the condition are called anti-VEGF drugs. These drugs reduce swelling in a part of the eye called the macula. This helps slow vision loss and sometimes improves vision. These drugs are given by injection (a shot) into the eye. Examples include:1

  • Avastin® (bevacizumab)
  • Eylea® (aflibercept)
  • Lucentis® (ranibizumab)

Surgery for diabetic retinopathy include:1

  • Laser surgery, which helps seal off leaking blood vessels and reduce swelling in the retina
  • Vitrectomy, which treats advanced cases by removing fluids and blood from the back of the eye

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

It is possible to keep this condition from getting worse. To do this, you need to:1

  • Control your blood sugar
  • Control your blood pressure
  • Get your kidney disease treated
  • Get regular dilated eye exams so early signs can be spotted and treated before you notice any vision changes
  • Call your eye doctor right away if you notice any vision changes

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