Diabetic retinopathy is an eye problem that can happen if you have diabetes. If left untreated, it can lead to severe vision loss or blindness.
At Banner Health, our eye specialists are experts in diagnosing and treating diabetic retinopathy. Learn more about this eye disease, your risk and how it is treated.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common eye issue related to diabetes and is the leading cause of vision loss in the United States.
When you have diabetes, your blood sugar levels can get too high. Over time, high blood sugar can slowly damage the small blood vessels in your retina (the lining in the back of your eye that changes light into images). The blood vessels can swell and leak, or they can close entirely and cause a blockage that prevents blood from passing through.
A healthy retina is important for good vision. When it is damaged, it can lead to permanent vision loss and blindness.
Stage 1 - Mild non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR): In the early stage of the disease, tiny areas of swelling called microaneurysms appear in the blood vessels. Small amounts of fluid may leak into the retina, causing swelling in the macula (an area near the retina).
Stage 2 - Moderate NPDR: Blood vessels in your eye swell more, causing a buildup of blood and other liquids in the macula.
Stage 3 - Severe NPDR: More blood vessels get blocked, slowing blood flow even more. When this happens, the body receives signals to grow new but weak vessels.
Stage 4 - Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR): At this advanced stage, the body sends more signals to make new vessels. They grow on the retina and along the back part of the eye. These new vessels may leak and form scar tissue. This can lead to serious eye conditions, such as retinal detachment, glaucoma and permanent blindness.
Many people don’t notice symptoms until the disease progresses to the PDR stage. Symptoms usually affect both eyes at the same time and may include:
Anyone with diabetes can get diabetic retinopathy. This includes people with type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes (a type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy).
Your risk goes up based on these factors:
If you have diabetes, it’s important to get regular eye exams. Eye care specialists (ophthalmologists and optometrists) will check for diabetic retinopathy as part of these exams.
Your eye care specialist will place drops in your eyes to make the pupils dilate (widen) to give them a better view of the inside of your eye. They will look for:
In addition to this exam, they may also use other tests to diagnose diabetic retinopathy:
When the condition is caught in its early stages, the first treatment is improving your blood sugar levels, cholesterol and blood pressure. You may also need to come in more often to have your eyes checked.
In later stages, you’ll need care right away. Depending on the specific problem with your retina, treatment may include:
Your eyes are unique and the outlook depends on how well you care for them. If diabetic retinopathy is caught early and managed well, you have a good chance of keeping your vision.
Remember to follow your provider’s treatment plan closely, manage your diabetes, protect your eyes and watch for vision changes. These steps can slow down any problems and minimize your risk of vision loss.
While prevention is not always guaranteed, you can take steps to lower your risk.