What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a condition occurring in people with diabetes, which causes progressive damage to the retina, the light sensitive lining at the back of the eye. The condition usually affects both eyes. The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely they will develop diabetic retinopathy. If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness.

What are the causes?

Diabetes is a disease that interferes with the body's ability to use and store sugar; too much sugar in the blood can damage the circulatory system of the retina. Diabetic retinopathy is the result of damage to the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina. They leak blood and other fluids that cause swelling of retinal tissue and clouding of vision.

How is it diagnosed?

Often there are no visual symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. That is why the American Optometric Association recommends that everyone over 40 have a comprehensive dilated eye examination once a year. It is one of the few non-invasive ways in which diabetes can be detected early.

Watch this news story, where Dr. Ivan Lee discusses how your comprehensive eye exam can be the first line of detection for diabetes.

How is diabetic retinopathy treated?

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy depends on the stage of the disease and is directed at trying to slow or stop the progression of the disease. In the early stages of Non-proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy, treatment other than regular monitoring may not be required. Following your doctor's advice for diet and exercise and keeping blood sugar levels well-controlled can help control the progression of the disease.

In later stages of the disease, laser treatment (photocoagulation) is used to stop the leakage of blood and fluid into the retina. A laser beam of light can be used to create small burns in areas of the retina with abnormal blood vessels to try to seal the leaks. Various surgical options are used depending on the unique circumstances and health of each patient.