Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness among U.S. adults.

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 be a serious sight-threatening complication of diabetes, often resulting in blindness. 


What are the causes?

Diabetes is a disease that interferes with the body's ability to use and store sugar (glucose); too much sugar in the blood can damage the circulatory system of the retina.

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when these tiny blood vessels leak blood and other fluids.

This causes the retinal tissue to swell, resulting in cloudy or blurred vision. Over time, diabetic retinaopthy  is the result of damage to the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina. 


Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy:

  • Seeing spots or floaters 
  • Blurred Vision  
  • Having a dark or empy spot in the center of your vision
  • Difficulty seeing well at night 

How is it diagnosed?

Diabetic retinopathy can be diagnosed through a comprehensive eye examinationThe American Optometric Association recommends that everyone over 40 have a comprehensive dilated eye examination once a year.
Comprehensive eye exam

During a comprehensive eye exam testing may include:

Patient history to determine vision difficulties, presence of diabetes, and other general health concerns that may be affecting vision.

  • Visual acuity measurements to determine how much central vision has been affected.
  • Refraction to determine if a new eyeglass prescription is needed.
  • Evaluation of the ocular structures, including the evaluation of the retina through a dilated pupil.
  • Measurement of the pressure within the eye.

 Often there are no visual symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy.

An annual eye exam is one of the few non-invasive ways in which diabetes can also be detected early.


Who is at Risk:

  • Diabetes. People with type 1 or type 2 diabetes are at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy. The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely he or she is to develop diabetic retinopathy, particularly if the diabetes is poorly controlled. 

If you are diabetic, you can help prevent or slow the development of diabetic retinopathy by:

Taking your prescribed medication

Sticking to your diet 

Excercising regularly

Controlling high blood pressure 

Avoiding alcohol and smoking. 

  • Race. Hispanics and African Americans are at greater risk for developing diabetic retinopathy.

  • Medical conditions. People with other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, are at greater risk.

  • Pregnancy. Pregnant women face a higher risk for developing diabetes and diabetic retinopathy. If a woman develops gestational diabetes, she has a higher risk of developing diabetes as she ages.


How is it 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.

People with advanced cases of diabetic retinopathy might need a surgical procedure to remove and replace the gel-like fluid in the back of the eye, called the vitreous.

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.



Watch Dr. Ivan Lee in this news story as he discusses how a comprehensive eye exam can be the first line of detection for diabetes.