What is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetes can cause damage to the small blood vessels throughout the body. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the small blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensing tissue in the back of the eye, are damaged. Left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can result in severe vision loss, including blindness.
There are two principal stages of diabetic retinopathy: non-proliferative and proliferative. In the initial stage, called non-proliferative or background retinopathy, tiny blood vessels within the retina leak blood or fluid. As damage to the tiny retinal blood vessels progresses, blood flow is obstructed. The retina responds by growing new blood vessels in an attempt to supply blood to the area where the original vessels closed. The new blood vessel growth results in the second stage of diabetic retinopathy, called proliferative diabetic retinopathy, or PDR. These new blood vessels are fragile and accompanied by scar tissue. Contraction of the scar tissue may lead to hemorrhage and retinal detachment. PDR affects approximately 5 percent of all diabetics and becomes more likely with increased duration of diabetes. If left untreated, proliferative diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness.
Who is At Risk for Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness among working age adults. Anyone with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy, but those with Type 1 diabetes and those who have had diabetes for a long time are at greatest risk.
Because diabetic retinopathy can develop with few or no symptoms, it is important that all adults with diabetes have an eye exam at least once a year. Frequent, comprehensive eye examinations are the best protection against the progression of diabetic retinopathy. Your doctor will perform a thorough examination, using advanced technology, to determine if you are at risk or have been affected with diabetic retinopathy. Treatment of diabetic retinopathy is highly effective and most vision loss can be prevented with proper treatment and follow-up care.
Early detection and management is important to arrest or slow the development of the disease. With careful monitoring, treatment can be started before sight is affected. If you have diabetes mellitus, you should have a dilated eye examination at least once a year. Non-diabetics should also have periodic eye examinations to detect this and other eye diseases.
What Are The Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy can progress to an advanced stage without any symptoms, underscoring the need for regular eye exams. Macular edema – swelling of the macula, or center of the retina, caused by leaking fluids – can cause blurred vision, but it may not be noticeable until the very center part of the macula becomes involved. In PDR, scar tissue may pull on the retina causing distortion and blurring. Unfortunately, there may be little warning before hemorrhaging or retinal detachment occurs.
Treating Diabetic Retinopathy
In early stages of retinopathy, no treatment may be necessary. When retinopathy affects the macula and central vision, outpatient laser treatment may be used to seal leaking blood vessels. In some cases, medication may be given to treat macular edema. For the more advanced stage, PDR, laser treatments may be used to curtail the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels. In some advanced cases of retinopathy, corrective microsurgical procedures may be performed.