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What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

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Diabetic Retinopathy ExampleAnyone who has diabetes is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. The longer someone lives with diabetes, the greater the potential damage to the retina portion of the eye. Diabetic retinopathy is a condition of diabetes that is caused by changes to the blood vessels in the back of the eye. When blood vessels in the retina are damaged they may leak fluid or blood. This can lead to visual blurring or distortion of the images that the retina sends to the brain. In more advanced stages the disease can lead to blindness. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness for American adults.

Cause and Symptoms

At the initial onset of this condition, there may be little or no symptoms whatsoever. This is precisely why regular eye exams are critical for diabetics. Further progression of the disease can cause visual loss in multiple ways. Patients in the early stages of the disease are categorized as having nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR). The retina shows evidence of mild bleeding, retinal swelling, and microaneurysmal changes to the blood vessels. In this stage of the disease, a decline in vision occurs if there is leakage of fluid into the center of vision, also known as macular edema. The more advanced stage of the disease is called proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). In PDR there is a proliferation of abnormal blood vessels. They grow in the retina and can sometimes extend into the jelly substance filling the back of the eye also known as the vitreous. These blood vessels are quite fragile and can easily leak blood into the retina or vitreous leading to a decline in vision. Oftentimes patients will notice floaters or streaks of blood in their vision as a result of bleeding into the vitreous. Retinal detachments may develop as a result of scar tissue formation triggered by the growth of new blood vessels.


If you are one of many untreated diabetics you are 25 times more likely to develop diabetic retinopathy. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, about 80% of people who have diabetes develop some kind of damage to their retina.


With diabetes, close management of the disease is the best form of treatment. Keeping tight control over one’s blood sugar levels have been known to delay the onset and progression of diabetic retinopathy. In patients who develop macular edema, laser treatment to the areas of retinal swelling can help increase fluid resorption. In patients who have proliferative diabetic retinopathy, performing scatter laser treatment can help shrink abnormal blood vessels. In patients with bleeding into the vitreous or a retinal detachment, vitrectomy surgery is required to remove the blood from the eye and release any scar tissue tugging on the retina. If you are a patient living in the North Shore of Massachusetts and are concerned about being diabetic call us today for a thorough eye exam.