What is diabetic retinopathy?
If you have diabetes, you may run the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Just as high blood sugar is unhealthy for the rest of your body, it can also cause damage to the blood vessels of the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, specifically the retina. Too much sugar in your blood can block the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina, cutting off its blood supply. As a result, the eye attempts to grow new blood vessels. These new blood vessels don’t develop properly and can leak easily. At first, diabetic retinopathy may cause no symptoms or only mild vision problems. Eventually, it can cause blindness.
Types of Diabetic Retinopathy
There are two types of diabetic retinopathy: “early” and “advanced”. Early diabetic retinopathy, also called nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR), is the most common type. In this form, new blood vessels aren’t growing, or proliferating, but the walls of the existing blood vessels in your retina weaken and swell, sometimes leaking fluid and blood. NPDR can progress from mild to severe, as more blood vessels become blocked. Most of the time there are no symptoms of diabetic retinopathy until it starts to change your vision. When this happens, it is already severe.
Advanced diabetic retinopathy is more severe and known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy. In this type, damaged blood vessels close off, causing the proliferation or growth of new, abnormal blood vessels in the retina, which can leak and cause scar tissue to form. As the condition progresses, you may experience blurred or cloudy vision, floaters, blind spots, and eventually blindness. This damage is irreversible.
Complications of severe diabetic retinopathy can also lead to other serious vision problems such as retinal detachment, cataracts, or glaucoma.
Anyone who has diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy. Risk of developing the eye condition can increase as a result of:
- Duration of diabetes – the longer you have diabetes, the greater your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy
- Poor control of your blood sugar level
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Tobacco use
- Being African-American, Hispanic or Native American
Treatment, which depends largely on the type of diabetic retinopathy you have and how severe it is, is geared to slowing or stopping progression of the condition. If you have mild or moderate non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, you may not need treatment right away. Good blood sugar control can usually slow the progression. Our doctors will closely monitor your eyes to determine when you might need treatment.
If you have advanced diabetic retinopathy, you’ll need prompt surgical treatment. One option may include laser treatment which can stop or slow the leakage of blood and fluid from abnormal blood vessels, and thus help control vision loss. Another treatment method may include injecting medicine into your eye to help stop growth of new blood vessels. Our doctors may recommend a combination of these treatments.
You can’t always prevent diabetic retinopathy. However, regular eye exams, good control of your blood sugar and blood pressure, and early intervention for vision problems can help prevent severe vision loss. Remember, diabetes doesn’t necessarily lead to vision loss. Taking an active role in diabetes management can go a long way toward preventing complications.