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.
Contact an ophthalmologist if any of the following symptoms develop:
Decreased or distorted vision
Fluctuations in vision quality
Difficulty seeing at night
Seeing spots or "floaters"
Seeing shadows or blind spots
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
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.