Diabetes causes high levels of sugar in the blood. Over time, excess blood sugar can damage small blood vessels in the body. This includes blood vessels in the retina.
High blood sugar causes swelling and leaking in the blood vessels of the retina. Some vessels may close off. New, weaker blood vessels can form. They also bleed or leak fluid into the eye or create scarring. This can cause problems with eyesight.
Things that raise the risk of diabetic retinopathy are:
Early diabetic retinopathy may not cause any symptoms. Over time, symptoms may be:
Blurred or double vision
Lower vision or loss of vision—in one or both eyes
Spots or what looks like floating objects—in one or both eyes
Eye pressure or pain
Problems seeing in dim light
Seeing flashing lights or rings around lights
Sudden blindness (rare)
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health.
An eye doctor will do an eye exam and vision test. Diagnosis is based on an exam of the retina.
Images of the eyes will be taken with:
Fundus photography—a digital photo of the retina
Optical coherence tomography—light waves are used to take pictures of the retina
Early stages of the disease may not need treatment. However, it is important to manage blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. This can slow or stop more damage. The eye doctor will check the condition.
If eye treatment is needed, options are:
Medicines injected into the eye to slow or stop damage, such as:
Anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (Anti-VEGF)—to reduce swelling in the eye
Steroids—to reduce swelling and inflammation in the eye
Surgery to slow the condition or keep if from getting worse, such as:
Laser treatment—to shrink abnormal blood vessels or to stop or slow leaks
Vitrectomy—blood vessels and/or scar tissue are removed
To help lower the risk of getting diabetic retinopathy:
Manage blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
Diabetic retinopathy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/diabetic-retinopathy. Accessed August 6, 2021.
Facts about diabetic retinopathy. National Eye Institute website. Available at: https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/diabetic-retinopathy. Accessed August 6, 2021.
Lechner J, O'Leary OE, et al. The pathology associated with diabetic retinopathy. Vision Res. 2017;139:7-14.
Management of diabetic retinopathy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/management-of-diabetic-retinopathy. Accessed August 6, 2021.
What is diabetic retinopathy? Eye Smart—American Academy of Ophthalmology website. Available at: https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-diabetic-retinopathy . Accessed August 6, 2021.
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