What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy: Overview

Diabetes can damage the small blood vessels in part of your eye. This part of the eye is called the retina. It detects light that enters the eye. Then it sends signals to your brain about what the eye sees.

When this type of eye damage happens, it's called diabetic retinopathy. It can lead to poor vision and even blindness. But if you keep your blood sugar and blood pressure levels in your target range, you can help avoid or slow the damage.

Diabetic retinopathy

Retinopathy means disease of the retina, the nerve layer at the back of your eye. Diabetic retinopathy is related to prolonged high blood sugar, which damages blood vessels in the eyes. It can lead to poor vision or blindness.

Diabetic retinopathy usually gets worse over many years. People who have diabetes need regular eye exams so that this condition can be found early. Keeping your blood sugar and blood pressure under control can help protect your vision.

What happens when you have diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy can lead to poor vision and even blindness. It often gets worse over many years.

At first, the blood vessels in the eye get weak. Blood and other liquid can leak into the retina from the blood vessels. If the fluid leaks into the center of your eye, you may have blurry vision.

If blood sugar levels stay high, the condition will keep getting worse. New blood vessels grow on the retina. These blood vessels can break open easily. If they break open, blood can leak into your eye and change your vision. This bleeding can also cause the retina to move away from the wall of the eye (retinal detachment). Sometimes people don't have symptoms until it's too late to treat them. That's why regular eye exams are important.

Retinopathy can also cause swelling in the middle of the retina (macula). This is called macular edema.

What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

There are usually no symptoms of diabetic retinopathy until it starts to change your vision. When this happens, the disease is already severe. Changes in vision can be a sign of severe damage to your eye. These changes can include floaters, pain in the eye, blurry vision, or new vision loss.

How is diabetic retinopathy treated?

Treatment can't cure diabetic retinopathy. But it can help prevent, delay, or reduce vision loss. Treatment includes laser treatment, medicine, or surgery. You may need to be treated more than once. Keeping your blood sugar in your target range is important. This can help keep the condition from getting worse.

How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?

Diabetic retinopathy can be found during a dilated eye exam. This exam is done by an ophthalmologist or optometrist. An exam by your primary doctor, when your eyes aren't dilated, isn't the same. You need a full exam done by an ophthalmologist or optometrist.

Eye exams for people with diabetes can include:

  • Visual acuity testing. This measures how well your eye can focus. It also checks how well you can see details at near and far distances.
  • Ophthalmoscopy and slit lamp exam. These may be used to find clouding of the lens (cataract), changes in the retina, and other problems.
  • Tonometry. This test measures the pressure inside the eye. It is used to help find glaucoma.

Regular dilated eye exams can help find eye diseases early. And they can prevent or delay vision loss.

How can you care for yourself when you have diabetic retinopathy?

  • Have regular eye exams. Tell your doctor about any changes in your vision.
  • Keep your blood sugar in your target range.
    • Eat a variety of healthy foods, and follow your meal plan so you know how much carbohydrate you need for meals and snacks.
    • Stay as active as you can. For many people, walking is a good choice. Bit by bit, increase the amount you are active every day. Try for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.
    • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicine exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
    • Check your blood sugar as often as your doctor recommends.
  • Eat a low-salt diet. If you have high blood pressure, this may help lower it. You may also need to take medicines to reach your goals.
  • If you smoke, quit or cut back as much as you can. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Avoid risky activities. These include things like weight lifting and some contact sports. They may trigger bleeding in the eye through impact or increased pressure.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are pregnant or planning to get pregnant. Retinopathy can get much worse during pregnancy. Planning ahead with your doctor and following the doctor's instructions can decrease this risk.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition caused by diabetes. Diabetes can damage small blood vessels in part of your eye. This can lead to poor vision and blindness.

What causes diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetes damages small blood vessels throughout the body. Diabetic retinopathy happens when prolonged high blood sugar damages the blood vessels of the retina. This is the part of the eye that sends images to your brain. Other conditions that increase your risk include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and kidney disease.

Diabetic retinopathy: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have sudden vision changes.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have increasing trouble doing everyday tasks like driving or reading because of your eyesight.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.