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Diabetic Retinopathy 

Diabetes is the number one cause of reversible vision loss in American adults. It contributes to as many as 5,000 cases of legal blindness each year.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

While the entire eye is vulnerable to injury, one part in particular is especially sensitive to damage in people with diabetes. This is the retina, which is located deep inside the eye and is often compared with the film in a 35-millimeter camera. It detects light and color, and it sends information to the brain that is put together into an image.
Damage to the retina is known as "retinopathy." It is especially common among people with uncontrolled blood glucose levels and people who have had diabetes for many years. Not everyone with retinopathy will experience vision loss, however. Severe disease can sometimes develop without any telltale symptoms. That's why early diagnosis and prompt treatment are the keys to preventing serious eye damage in the future.

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

People with diabetes can reduce their risk of retinopathy—and slow the progression of existing eye disease—by following these recommendations:

  • Test blood glucose regularly. Use the results to manage your blood sugar carefully. 

  • Consume a healthy, diabetes-friendly diet.

  • Control high blood pressure.

  • Seek treatment for anemia, atherosclerosis, and kidney disease.

  • Schedule yearly checkups with an eye healthcare provider. Schedule them more often if diagnosed with retinopathy.

Who's at risk?

Studies have shown that nearly all people with type 1 diabetes experience at least some degree of retinopathy after living with the disease for 20 years. This is also true for more than half of those with type 2 diabetes. Uncontrolled blood glucose levels can increase the risk of retinopathy, and infrequent visits to the eye healthcare provider can delay diagnosis and lead to serious complications. Research suggests that certain minority groups, such as non-Hispanic blacks and Mexican Americans older than 40, are at a greater risk than others of developing retinopathy.

Warning signs

Contact an ophthalmologist if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • Decreased or distorted vision

  • Blurriness

  • Fluctuations in vision quality

  • Difficulty seeing at night

  • Seeing spots or "floaters"

  • Seeing shadows or blind spots

Treatment choices

Retinopathy doesn’t always result in legal blindness. Cases can be classified as mild, moderate, or severe. A variety of treatments is available, depending on the extent of damage to the retina:

  • Mild to moderate cases of diabetic retinopathy often benefit from careful monitoring and control of blood glucose levels under the close supervision of a healthcare provider.

  • Laser therapy is used to treat severe retinopathy.

  • Steroid injections are sometimes used to treat severe cases that do not respond to laser therapy.

  • Surgery is not typically used to treat diabetic retinopathy itself. It is sometimes used to address complications of the disease.

  • People with diabetes who also have cataracts typically undergo screening and treatment for retinopathy before undergoing cataract surgery.

Online Medical Reviewer: Hurd, Robert, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2016
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