What is diabetic retinopathy?


If you have diabetes, you've probably heard of this. High blood sugar can weaken and damage the blood vessels of the retina, causing bleeding and other changes that can affect vision. In some cases, these changes can even lead to blindness over time. But regular screening offers the chance of early detection and treatments that will slow the progression of diabetic retinopathy.

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Jeffrey S. Heier, MD
With cases of diabetes rising precipitously, the eye problem known as diabetic retinopathy -- which can cause vision loss and blindness -- is becoming a serious public health issue.

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when abnormal blood sugar levels damage small blood vessels in the retina (the innermost layer of the eye). Damage to the retina can lead to vision problems, including permanent vision loss. As diabetic retinopathy progresses, you may notice spots and floaters in your vision. Central vision may become distorted.
Diabetic Retinopathy is a complication of diabetes. It can be vision-threatening and is caused by damage to the small blood vessels in the retina (a layer that lines the inside of the back of the eye).

There are different stages of retinopathy which can be identified by a full dilated eye exam.  Some of these changes include leakage of blood or fluid in the retina.  These chnages may require prompt treatment to prevent futher vision loss.  Therefore, it is very important to maintain at least yearly dilated eye exams with your eye doctor.
Retinopathy is a diabetic eye disease that results in damage to the small blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. Loss of vision may result. A dilated eye exam in which the pupil (the black center) of the eye is temporarily enlarged with eyedrops allows an eye care specialist to see the inside of the eye more easily. There are two types of retinopathy:

  • nonproliferative retinopathy: damage to the retina marked by bleeding, fluid buildup, and abnormal dilation of the blood vessels. It is an early stage of diabetic retinopathy.
  • proliferative retinopathy: a condition in which fragile new blood vessels grow along the retina and in the clear gel that lies behind the eye's lens and in front of the retina.
Johns Hopkins Medicine
Diabetic retinopathy is a vision-threatening complication of diabetes mellitus that is marked by changes in the blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.
These changes occur over time due to high blood sugar levels, causing the walls of the blood vessels that supply blood to the retina to become thicker. Initially, this causes the blood vessels to become more porous or leaky. Leakage of fluid, blood, and lipids (fat) may accumulate in the center of the retina, or macula, leading to blurred vision—also known as diabetic macular edema.
In later stages of diabetic retinopathy, small blood vessels in the retina close, depriving the tissue of food and oxygen (ischemia). This fosters the release of a vasoproliferative substance inside the eye, which causes new, abnormal blood vessels to form—a condition known as neovascularization.
Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in Americans ages 20 to 65. However, regular eye exams and timely treatment can prevent or curb visual impairment associated with the condition.
In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, termed nonproliferative retinopathy, the tiny blood vessels in the retina develop outpouchings, called micro-aneurysms. These bulges, in conjunction with leaking capillaries, may leak blood or fluid anywhere in the retina. If this fluid builds up in the macula, central fine vision becomes affected. If fluid buildup becomes severe, and if both eyes are affected, reading and driving vision may be lost. 

Continue Learning about Diabetic Retinopathy (Eye Damage)

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.