Diabetic Retinopathy

People who have been diagnosed with diabetes may have an increased risk of developing eye related complications. While diabetes can increase the likelihood of developing cataracts and glaucoma, the most common eye disease caused by diabetes is diabetic retinopathy.

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What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a progressive eye disease marked by lost or impaired vision due to high blood sugar levels, which can cause changes to the blood vessels of the retina (the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye). The condition is categorized as non-proliferative or proliferative, depending on how far the disease has progressed. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in the age group 25-65. More than 5 million Americans over the age of 40 currently have diabetic retinopathy.

What Are the Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed as either non-proliferative or proliferative based on the extent to which the blood vessels have changed. In its earliest form, diabetic retinopathy is considered non-proliferative and often causes no visible symptoms at the start. When left untreated, the condition typically advances to proliferative diabetic retinopathy, a more progressive stage of the disease that can gradually impede your vision or cause total blindness when the blood vessels grow abnormally and bleed. Diabetes causes the blood vessels in the macula, the part of the retina that is responsible for central vision, to swell. This can lead to a loss of central vision. Swelling of the macula can occur at either stage, but is the most common reason why diabetic patients need eye treatment.

Non-Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

This is the early form of diabetic retinopathy and is also the most common. The blood vessels of the retina leak blood and other fluid which causes the retina to swell. Often times, there are no symptoms with non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy. However, a thorough eye exam can reveal damage which is why it’s important to get eye exams each year if you have diabetes.

Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

This is the advanced form of diabetic retinopathy. Proliferative diabetic retinopathy occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow on the retina. These new blood vessels are weak and can break easily, causing blood to leak and clouding vision. Symptoms of proliferative diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Blurry, darkened, or cloudy vision
  • Seeing floaters (dark spots or lines)

Diabetic Retinopathy vs. Hypertensive Retinopathy

While diabetic retinopathy and hypertensive retinopathy are both characterized by damage and swelling of the retinal blood vessels, the two conditions differ in some respects. Diabetic retinopathy is caused by elevated levels of sugar in the blood, often causing the blood vessels to leak and swell. In contrast, hypertensive retinopathy results from high blood pressure, which can narrow the blood vessels and limit retinal function. Both conditions are progressive and many of the symptoms overlap, making it pivotal to undergo an eye examination as soon as you notice changes to your vision

Do I Need to Receive Screenings for Diabetic Retinopathy?

Early detection of diabetic retinopathy is important to prevent permanent vision loss. If you have diabetes, you should have a dilated eye exam with one of our comprehensive ophthalmologists or retina specialists once a year. In addition, you should manage your overall health and keep your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control.

What Treatments for Diabetic Retinopathy Are Available?

Treatment of diabetic retinopathy will depend on the stage of the disease and the area of the retina that is affected. The early stages generally do not require treatment, but should be continually monitored. If the disease progresses to the advanced stages, medications, laser treatments, and/or surgery may be required. There are a number of ways to monitor and address your diabetic retinopathy, depending on the nature of the changes to your retina. An intravitreal injection is a simple, in-office procedure designed to treat conditions caused by diabetic retinopathy—such as macular edema and macular degeneration—by injecting medications near the retina to protect your vision. Additionally, treatment utilizing a retinal laser can seal or eliminate leaking blood vessels, as well as irregular tissue, caused by diabetic retinopathy. In more advanced cases, vitrectomy surgery may be necessary to repair damage to the retina. Our eye doctors will perform a comprehensive eye evaluation to determine the best retina treatment for your needs.

Additional Diabetic Retinopathy FAQs

How long does it take for diabetic retinopathy to develop?

Diabetic retinopathy generally presents approximately five to ten years after a diabetes diagnosis, although many patients with type 2 diabetes discover they are already affected by the condition at the time of diagnosis. It is usually the case that the longer a patient has diabetes, the stronger the likelihood that they have sustained some type of retinal damage.

What does vision look like with diabetic retinopathy?

You may notice your vision has darkened or appears blurry, even with glasses. Dark spots, holes, or a sudden loss of vision are also common.

What are microaneurysms in diabetic retinopathy?

Microaneurysms are small, bubble-like lesions that appear along the retinal blood vessels and leak tiny amounts of blood or fluid. While microaneurysms typically do not cause any symptoms, they are considered a key sign of future vision problems and often indicate the early stages of diabetic retinopathy.

Can diabetic retinopathy be reversed?

There are some types of retinal damage that may be reversed if treated early on; however, diabetic retinopathy can cause permanent vision loss, making timely evaluation and treatment of the condition crucial.

Is there a way to prevent diabetic retinopathy?

A healthy lifestyle involving a nutritious diet, regular exercise, routine eye screenings, and avoidance of tobacco products can lower the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. It is also helpful to monitor your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

What’s the difference between macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the body does not utilize sugar properly, while macular degeneration typically presents with age as the macula gradually deteriorates.

To schedule your annual diabetic eye exam, call our office at (610) 696-1230.

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