What is diabetic retinopathy? Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease. It is also the leading cause of blindness in working-age Americans, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It is caused by damage to the blood vessels of the retina. The retina is the part of the eye which changes light and images that enter the eye into nerve signals which are then sent to the brain; it is the main portion of the eye which allows us to see.

High blood sugar levels lead to diabetic retinopathy. The risk of developing retinopathy grows the longer a person has diabetes. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, almost everyone who has had diabetes for over 30 years will show retinopathy diabetic signs. Diabetics are also at more of a risk if their blood sugar levels are poorly controlled.


Diabetic Retinopathy Symptoms


You cannot wait around for symptoms of diabetic retinopathy to appear. Once symptoms manifest the damage to your eyes is already severe and usually irreversible. It is wise to know what the symptoms are, however. Typical symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Floaters
  • Shadows or missing areas of vision
  • Trouble seeing at night


Diabetic Retinopathy Screenings


Since there are no early symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, it is recommended that diabetics get their eyes examined regularly. Dilated eye exams are used to diagnose diabetic retinopathy, and therefore should be performed annually at minimum. Normally fluorescein angiography is the eye test that is used for retinopathy. This is where a special dye is applied and a camera is used to look at the blood flow to the retina and choroid, which are the two layers in the back of the eye. If a blockage or leakage is found, the pictures will map the location for possible treatment.


Diabetic Retinopathy Stages


There are three progressive stages of diabetic retinopathy. They are:

Micro-aneurysms – Early on in diabetic retinopathy blood vessels in the retina develop weak spots. These bulge outward, creating micro-aneurysms which may leak fluid and blood into the tissues surrounding the retina. In some people diabetic retinopathy never evolves any further and there is no vision loss. In some, however, the condition evolves into macular edema.

Macular Edema–This condition is caused by the accumulation of the fluid which has leaked out of the capillaries of the eyes. This causes swelling, which alters the position of the retina and blurs vision.

Proliferative Retinopathy – This is the most dangerous form or retinopathy. It can leads to an acute loss of vision or possibly even diabetic blindness if the retina becomes detached.


Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy


Proliferative diabetic retinopathy occurs when the blood vessels of the retina begin to close, which prevent there from being enough blood flow to the retina. The body attempts to fix this problem by growing new blood vessels. However these new blood vessels not only do not supply the supply of blood the retina needs, but are fragile and leak as well.  Furthermore, they may be accompanied by scar tissue which may cause the retina to detach. There is several ways that proliferative retinopathy can cause vision loss. They are:

Vitreous hemorrhage – This is occurs when new blood vessels of the eye bleed and prevent light rays from reaching the retina. A person with this condition may perceive only light and dark. This condition does not normally cause vision loss, and when the blood cleared away, vision is normally restored to its former level, unless the macula has been damaged.

Traction retinal detachment – When this occurs, scar tissue shrinks causing the retina to wrinkle and pull from its normal position. This wrinkling can distort your vision. If the macula or other large areas of the retina detach, severe vision loss occurs.

Neo-vascular glaucoma – When new blood vessels form, they may block the normal flow of fluid out of the eye. Pressure therefore builds up, causing damage to the optic nerve (GetEyeSmart.org, 2012).