Diabetic Retinopathy

Understanding Diabetic Retinopathy: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Diabetic retinopathy is a serious eye condition affecting millions of people worldwide, and understanding this condition is crucial for those living with diabetes. With the number of diabetic retinopathy cases estimated to reach 160.50 million by 2045, it is becoming increasingly important to recognize the signs, risk factors, and treatments available. This article aims to provide valuable insight into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for diabetic retinopathy, empowering readers to take control of their diabetes and eye health.

Key Takeaways

  • Diabetic retinopathy is a diabetes-related eye condition that can lead to vision loss.

  • Early recognition of symptoms and preventive measures such as regular eye exams, managing diabetes effectively, and controlling blood pressure levels are key for mitigating severe vision loss from diabetic retinopathy.

  • Treatment options include laser therapy, medication injections, vitrectomy surgery or other management strategies depending on the individual’s needs.

Understanding Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a diabetes-related eye condition that damages the tiny blood vessels in the retina, potentially leading to vision loss or even blindness. This damage occurs when high blood sugar levels weaken the blood vessels in the retina, causing them to leak fluid or bleed.

There are two primary early stages of diabetic retinopathy: non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) and proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR).

Non-proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (NPDR)

Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) is the initial stage of diabetic retinopathy. This stage is characterized by weakened blood vessels in the retina, leading to the formation of microaneurysms, which are the earliest identifiable signs of the condition. As NPDR progresses, fluid and blood may leak into the retina, causing macular edema, a swelling of the macula that can result in visual impairment. This leakage is thought to be caused by an increase in diacylglycerol levels, which activates protein kinase C and disrupts retinal blood dynamics, potentially leading to the formation of new blood vessels.

Macular edema treatment is necessary to protect vision. If left untreated, it could result in permanent vision loss. Therefore, early diagnosis and timely treatment are key to maintaining visual acuity and mitigating the condition’s impact on the patient’s life.

Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (PDR)

Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR) is the more severe stage of diabetic retinopathy. In PDR, the occlusion of affected blood vessels leads to the development of new, fragile blood vessels in the retina. These delicate blood vessels can cause:

  • Bleeding into the vitreous, the clear jelly-like substance in the center of the eye

  • Vision problems

  • Complications such as retinal detachment and glaucoma.

Unfavorable prognostic factors for visual loss in PDR include:

  • Diffuse edema

  • Multiple leaks

  • Lipid deposition in the fovea

  • Macular ischemia

  • Hypertension

Prompt diagnosis and management of PDR is pivotal in averting significant vision impairment and ensuring the patient’s life quality.

Identifying Risk Factors

Several factors can increase the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, including:

  • Diabetes duration

  • Inadequate blood sugar control

  • Elevated blood pressure

  • Smoking

The probability of developing diabetic retinopathy increases with the length of time one has had diabetes, and inadequate blood sugar regulation heightens the risk of the condition. Additionally, high blood pressure and smoking both elevate the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.

Certain populations are at a heightened risk, such as women with pre-existing diabetes or those who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy. Grasping these risk factors allows for the adoption of preventive strategies and the upkeep of excellent eye health.

Recognizing Symptoms

Although diabetic retinopathy can lead to vision loss and blindness, its symptoms may not appear until the disease progresses. Typical symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include blurred vision, dark spots, and discomfort or pressure in one or both eyes. Dark spots in vision can be caused by blood leakage into the eye, creating floaters in the field of vision.

Recognizing these symptoms and seeking immediate medical help if vision changes are observed is vital. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can mitigate severe vision loss and enhance the prognosis of diabetic retinopathy.

Diagnostic Procedures

Diagnosing diabetic retinopathy involves a comprehensive eye examination, including:

  • Retinal evaluations

  • Fasting glucose and hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) tests to assess long-term blood sugar control and evaluate the risk and severity of diabetic retinopathy

  • Additional testing if necessary, such as imaging studies like fluorescein angiography, optical coherence tomography, and B-scan ultrasonography

These diagnostic tools help healthcare professionals accurately diagnose diabetic retinopathy.

Prompt diagnosis is key to effective diabetic retinopathy management and treatment. Frequent eye check-ups and blood sugar level monitoring can facilitate early condition detection, and halt further progression.

Treatment Options

Various treatments are available for diabetic retinopathy, depending on the severity of the condition. These options may include laser therapy, medication injections, and vitrectomy. Each treatment method has its own benefits and risks, and the patient’s eye doctor will determine the appropriate treatment plan based on the individual’s specific needs and the stage of the disease.

Laser Therapy

Laser therapy is a treatment option for diabetic retinopathy that uses laser energy to seal leaking blood vessels or prevent the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels. The Early Treatment for Diabetic Retinopathy Study revealed encouraging results: laser surgery for macular edema successfully reduced the incidence of moderate visual loss from 30% to 15% over a 3-year period. This shows the effectiveness of laser surgery in treating this condition and minimizing the formation of scar tissue. The Diabetic Retinopathy Study reported that adequate scatter laser panretinal photocoagulation can reduce the risk of severe visual loss by more than 50%. This was a significant finding.

Despite the effectiveness of laser therapy in managing diabetic retinopathy, it comes with potential risks, including pain, infection, and vision changes. Therefore, discussing the pros and cons of laser therapy with an eye doctor prior to treatment is of utmost importance.

Medication Injections

Medication injections are another treatment option for diabetic retinopathy, involving the administration of medications directly into the eye to decrease inflammation, impede vessels from growing, or enhance blood circulation in the retina. Common types of medication injections include anti-VEGF drugs, steroids, and bevacizumab (Avastin). These injections work by blocking the activity of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which is responsible for the proliferation of abnormal blood vessels in the eye.

The procedure for administering medication injections is typically performed in-office using topical anesthesia to numb the eye. Some mild discomfort, such as burning, tearing, or pain, may be experienced for approximately 24 hours following the injection.

Before opting for medication injections, discussing the advantages and potential hazards with an eye doctor is crucial.


Vitrectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the vitreous gel from the eye, which can help treat severe cases of diabetic retinopathy with complications such as vitreous hemorrhage or retinal detachment. The typical recovery period following a vitrectomy surgery is estimated to be between 4 to 6 weeks, during which some degree of pain and blurred vision may be experienced. It is essential to abstain from any activities that require bending or heavy lifting during the recovery period and maintain a face-down position for 1 to 2 weeks post-surgery.

The success rate of vitrectomy in managing severe diabetic retinopathy has been reported to be high in various studies, with one study showing a final anatomical success rate of 92.65%. Nonetheless, keep in mind that outcomes may differ between individuals. Therefore, discussing the pros and cons of vitrectomy with an eye doctor prior to the operation is paramount.

Preventive Measures

Adopting measures to decrease the risk of diabetic retinopathy occurrence or progression, including advanced diabetic retinopathy, is critical to prevent the possibility to develop diabetic retinopathy. Here are some steps you can take to prevent or manage diabetic retinopathy:

  1. Conduct regular eye exams.

  2. Manage diabetes effectively.

  3. Adhere to a healthy lifestyle.

  4. Maintain healthy blood sugar levels. An A1C test, which reveals the average blood sugar level over the past 3 months, can be used to establish a personal A1C goal to prevent or manage diabetic retinopathy.

In addition to blood sugar management, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, quitting smoking, and exercising regularly can also help prevent diabetic retinopathy. By adopting these preventive measures, individuals can significantly reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy and improve their eye health and overall well-being.

Managing Other Diabetic Eye Diseases

Diabetic retinopathy is not the only eye condition associated with diabetes. Other eye conditions related to diabetes include:

  • Diabetic macular edema (DME): characterized by the accumulation of fluid in the macula, the central part of the retina, and can lead to vision problems or even blindness if left untreated.

  • Cataracts: elevated blood glucose levels can cause changes in the lens of the eye, resulting in a faster progression of cataracts.

  • Glaucoma: increased pressure in the eye due to diabetes can damage the optic nerve and lead to vision loss.

It is important for individuals with diabetes to have regular eye exams to monitor and manage these conditions.

Furthermore, those with diabetes are two times more likely to develop glaucoma than those without diabetes. Managing these other diabetic eye diseases involves proper diabetes control, regular eye examinations, and appropriate treatments as determined by an eye doctor. By addressing these conditions early on, individuals with diabetes can help preserve their vision and maintain a higher quality of life.


In conclusion, understanding diabetic retinopathy and its various stages, risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options is critical for individuals living with diabetes. By recognizing the signs, seeking prompt medical attention, and adopting preventive measures, individuals can effectively manage diabetic retinopathy and maintain optimal eye health. With proper care and attention, it is possible to prevent or minimize the impact of diabetic retinopathy on one’s life, preserving vision and enhancing overall well-being.



Diabetic Retinopathy FAQ

Q: What is diabetic retinopathy?

A: Diabetic retinopathy is a diabetes complication characterized by damage to retinal blood vessels. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. Chronically high blood sugar, symptomatic of diabetes, blocks the blood flow to the retina, and can cause fluid leaks or hemorrhages. This damage leads to vision impairment and eventual blindness.

Q: What causes diabetic retinopathy?

A: The retina’s blood vessels are small, matching the delicate nature of the tissue, making these vessels particularly susceptible to damage from high blood sugar levels. The condition progresses through four stages as the retina faces increasing damage:

  1. Mild nonproliferative retinopathy. The retina’s blood vessels swell, which may cause fluid leakage in the retina.
  2. Moderate nonproliferative retinopathy. Blood vessels swell and distort, causing them to become incapable of transporting blood.
  3. Severe nonproliferative retinopathy. Many blood vessels are blocked, depriving blood supply to areas of the retina. In response, these areas secrete growth factors, signalling to the retina to grow new blood vessels.
  4. Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). In this stage, new blood vessels are created but they are fragile, leading to increased leakage and bleeding. This continued damage creates scar tissues, which contracts causing retinal detachment, meaning the retina pulls away from the underlying tissue. As the retina sends visual images to the brain via the optic nerve, this detachment can cause permanent vision loss.

Q: Who is at-risk for diabetic retinopathy?

A: Diabetics of every type are susceptible to diabetic retinopathy. Duration of the illness can increase the risk of developing the condition. Diabetic women are susceptible to rapid onset or worsening of the condition when pregnant. Other factors include—control of blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use, and ethnic background.

Q: Can diabetic retinopathy be prevented?

A: The duration of diabetes increases the likelihood of developing diabetic retinopathy. Thus it is important for diabetics to control their blood sugar levels. Lifestyle changes may minimize developing diabetic retinopathy: implementing frequent monitoring and recording of blood sugar levels, a healthy diet and exercise routine, refraining from smoking or use of other tobacco products, and controlling blood pressure are all good measures.

Although health monitoring is important, ultimately these lifestyle changes may still prove ineffective, as diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss in diabetics. Therefore, it is imperative to receive yearly comprehensive eye exams if at-risk for the condition.

Q: How is diabetic retinopathy detected?

A: Symptoms typically do not appear until vision damage has already occurred, meaning close monitoring and medical testing are necessary for early detection of diabetic retinopathy.

Hemoglobin A1C(HbA1c). Ordered by your family physicianthis test provides a three-month average of blood sugar levels. This average indicates how well blood sugar is controlled, with the usual goal of having an HbA1c at or below seven percent. Experts recommend this testing at least two times a year, but depending on your blood sugar management, more frequent testing may be needed. This test indicates whether your blood sugar may be harming your eyes.

Dilated Eye Exams. Dr. Conlon performs these exams, to examine the back of the eye. He will administer drops to dilate your pupils, as enlarging them allows for a better view of the back of your eye. Using a magnifying lens, Dr. Conlon can diagnose any eye damage.

If necessary, Dr. Conlon can also refer patients to a retinal specialist for more extensive testing, including Fluorescein Angiography, which identifies specific leakages.

Q: What symptoms are caused by diabetic retinopathy?

A: The early stages of diabetic retinopathy typically progress unnoticed by sufferers. The condition is usually recognized only once symptoms start causing vision loss: blurred vision, vision fluctuations, colour perception difficulties, and floaters, flashes of light, or dark spots in the visual field. Advanced cases can lead to macular edema (swelling in part of the retina), and retinal detachment. The condition also raises the risk of glaucoma and cataracts.

Q: Does diabetic retinopathy cause blindness?

A: In its later stages, diabetic retinopathy can result in irreversible vision loss. Preventative measures and medical observation are key in eliminating this possibility.

Q: How is diabetic retinopathy treated?

A: Treatment options are dependent on the severity of the condition.

Anti-VEGF Injection Therapy involves injection in the eye’s gel to block a protein that stimulates the growth of abnormal blood vessel. It has proven effective for slowing progression of diabetic retinopathy.

Scatter laser surgery is the traditional treatment, making thousands of laser burns into retinal areas besides the macula. These burns shrink abnormal blood vessels and are usually most effective before new blood vessels begin bleeding.

Vitrectomy, a surgical procedure that removes the vitreous humor gel filling the eye cavity, is another treatment option.

Q: Can treatment restore vision?

A: Treatment is usually intended to prevent further vision loss, although depending on complications, improvements to vision can occur.