Retinopathy is a disease of the retina. The retina is the nerve layer that lines the back of your eye. It is the part of your eye that "takes pictures" and sends the images to your brain. Many people with diabetes get retinopathy. This kind of retinopathy is called diabetic retinopathy (retinal disease caused by diabetes).
Diabetic retinopathy can lead to poor vision and even blindness. Most of the time, it gets worse over many years. At first, the blood vessels in the eye get weak. This can lead to blood and other liquid leaking into the retina from the blood vessels. This is called non-proliferative retinopathy. And this is the most common retinopathy. If the fluid leaks into the centre of your eye, you may have blurry vision. Most people with non-proliferative retinopathy have no symptoms.
If blood sugar levels stay high, diabetic retinopathy will keep getting worse. New blood vessels grow on the retina. This may sound good, but these new blood vessels are weak. They can break open very easily, even while you are sleeping. If they break open, blood can leak into the middle part of your eye in front of the retina and change your vision. This bleeding can also cause scar tissue to form, which can pull on the retina and cause the retina to move away from the wall of the eye (retinal detachment). This is called proliferative retinopathy. Sometimes people don't have symptoms until it is too late to treat them. This is why having eye examinations regularly is so important.
Retinopathy can also cause swelling of the macula of the eye. This is called macular edema. The macula is the middle of the retina, which lets you see details. When it swells, it can make your vision much worse. It can even cause legal blindness.
If you are not able to keep your blood sugar levels in a target range, it can cause damage to your blood vessels. Diabetic retinopathy happens when high blood sugar damages the tiny blood vessels of the retina.
When you have diabetic retinopathy, high blood pressure can make it worse. High blood pressure can cause more damage to the weakened vessels in your eye, clouding more of your vision.
Most of the time, there are no symptoms of diabetic retinopathy until it starts to change your vision. When this happens, diabetic retinopathy is already severe. Having your eyes checked regularly can find diabetic retinopathy early enough to treat it and help prevent vision loss.
If you notice problems with your vision, call an eye doctor (ophthalmologist) right away. 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.
An eye examination by an eye specialist (ophthalmologist or optometrist) is the only way to detect diabetic retinopathy. Having a dilated eye examination regularly can help find retinopathy before it changes your vision. On your own, you may not notice symptoms until the disease becomes severe.
You can lower your chance of damaging small blood vessels in the eye by keeping your blood sugar levels and blood pressure levels within a target range. If you smoke, quit. All of this reduces the risk of damage to the retina. It can also help slow down how quickly your retinopathy gets worse and can prevent future vision loss.
If you have a dilated eye examination regularly, you and your doctor can find diabetic retinopathy before it has a chance to get worse. For most people, this will mean an eye examination every year. Finding retinopathy early gives you a better chance of avoiding vision loss and blindness.
Surgery, laser treatment, or medicine may help slow the vision loss caused by diabetic retinopathy. You may need to be treated more than once as the disease gets worse.
Learning about diabetic retinopathy:
Living with diabetic retinopathy:
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Diabetes damages small blood vessels throughout the body, leading to reduced blood flow. When these changes affect the tiny blood vessels in the eyes, diabetic retinopathy may occur.
In the early stage of diabetic retinopathy, tiny blood vessels in the eye weaken and develop small bulges that may burst and leak into the retina. Later, new fragile blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. These blood vessels may break and bleed into the eye, clouding vision and causing scar tissue to form.
The scar tissue may pull on the retina, leading to retinal detachment. Retinal detachment occurs when the retina separates from the wall of the eye. This can lead to vision loss.
You may have diabetic retinopathy for a long time without noticing any symptoms. Typically, retinopathy does not cause noticeable symptoms until significant damage has occurred and complications have developed.
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy and its complications may include:
Diabetic retinopathy begins as a mild disease. During the early stage of the disease, the small blood vessels in the retina become weaker and develop small bulges called microaneurysms. These microaneurysms are the earliest signs of retinopathy and may appear a few years after the onset of diabetes. They may also burst and cause tiny blood spots (hemorrhages) on the retina. But they do not usually cause symptoms or affect vision. This is called non-proliferative retinopathy. At this stage, treatment is not required.
As retinopathy progresses, fluid and protein leak from the damaged blood vessels and cause the retina to swell. This may cause mild to severe vision loss, depending on which parts of the retina are affected. If the centre of the retina (macula) is affected, vision loss can be severe. Swelling and distortion of the macula (macular edema), which results from a buildup of fluid, is the most common complication of retinopathy. Macular edema treatment usually works to stop and sometimes reverse your loss of vision.
In some people, retinopathy gets worse over the course of several years and progresses to proliferative retinopathy. In these cases, reduced blood flow to the retina stimulates the growth (proliferation) of fragile new blood vessels on the surface of the retina. As the new blood vessels multiply, one or more complications may develop and damage the person's vision. These complications can include:
Any of these later complications may cause severe, permanent vision loss.
Your risk for diabetic retinopathy depends largely on two things: how long you have had diabetes and whether or not you have kept good control of your blood sugar.
You can control some risk factors, which are things that may increase your risk for diabetic retinopathy and its complications. Risk factors that you can control include:
If you have type 2 diabetes and use the medicine rosiglitazone (Avandia, Avandamet) to treat your diabetes, you may have a higher risk for problems with the centre of the retina (the macula). Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the makers of the drug have warned that taking this medicine could cause swelling in the macula, which is called macular edema.
Call your doctor immediately if you have diabetes and notice:
Watchful waiting is not an option if you have diabetes and notice changes in your vision.
If you have type 2 diabetes, even if you do not have any symptoms of eye disease, you still need to have your eyes and vision checked regularly by an eye specialist (ophthalmologist or optometrist). If you wait until you have symptoms, it is more likely that complications and severe damage to the retina will have already developed. These may be harder to treat and may result in permanent vision loss.
If you have type 1 diabetes, are age 15 or older, and were diagnosed 5 or more years ago, you should have your eyes checked even if you don't have symptoms.1 If you have type 2 diabetes, you should have your eyes checked when you are first diagnosed.1 If you wait until you have symptoms, it is more likely that complications and severe damage to the retina will have happened. These may be harder to treat. And the damage may be permanent.
Watchful waiting is not an option if you already have diabetic retinopathy but do not have symptoms or vision loss. You will need to return to your ophthalmologist for frequent evaluations (every few months in some cases) so that your doctor can closely monitor changes in your eyes. There is no cure for the disease, but treatment can slow its progression. Your ophthalmologist can tell you how often you need to be evaluated.
People who have diabetes need to see a doctor who specializes in eye care for their eye evaluations.
If you have diabetic retinopathy and need laser treatment or surgery, you need to consult an ophthalmologist who specializes in treating the retina and has special training in the care of eye disease caused by diabetes.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Diabetic retinopathy can be detected during a dilated eye examination by an ophthalmologist or optometrist. An examination by your primary doctor, during which your eyes are not dilated, is not an adequate substitute for a full examination done by an ophthalmologist. Eye examinations for people with diabetes can include:
Your doctor may also do a test called an optical coherence tomography (OCT) to check for fluid in your retina. Sometimes a fluorescein angiogram is done to check for and locate leaking blood vessels in the retina, especially if you have symptoms, such as blurred or distorted vision, that suggest damage to or swelling of the retina.
Fundus photography can track changes in the eye over time in people who have diabetic retinopathy and especially in those who have been treated for it. Fundus photography produces accurate pictures of the back of the eye (the fundus). An eye doctor can compare photographs taken at different times to watch the progression of the disease and find out how well treatment is working.
Early detection and treatment of diabetic retinopathy can help prevent vision loss. For people in whom diabetic retinopathy has not been diagnosed, the Canadian Diabetes Association recommends that screening be done based on the following guidelines:1
Note: Pregnant women who develop gestational diabetes are not at risk for diabetic retinopathy and do not need to be screened for it. (But women who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy have a greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, which can put them at increased risk for retinopathy and other eye problems.)
People who have diabetes are also at increased risk for other eye diseases, including glaucoma and cataracts. Regular dilated eye examinations can help detect these diseases early and prevent or delay vision loss.
There is no cure for diabetic retinopathy. But laser treatment (photocoagulation) is usually very effective at preventing vision loss if it is done before the retina has been severely damaged. Surgical removal of the vitreous gel (vitrectomy) may also help improve vision if the retina has not been severely damaged. Sometimes injections of anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) medicine help to shrink new blood vessels in proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Because symptoms may not develop until the disease becomes severe, early detection through regular screening is important. The earlier retinopathy is detected, the easier it is to treat and the more likely vision will be preserved.
You may not need treatment for diabetic retinopathy unless it has affected the centre (macula) of the retina or, in rare cases, if your side (peripheral) vision has been severely damaged. But you do need to have your vision checked regularly.
If the macula has been damaged by macular edema, you may need laser treatment. For more severe retinopathy, you may need either laser treatment or vitrectomy. These procedures can help prevent, stabilize, or slow vision loss when they are done before the retina has been severely damaged. Newer treatment includes medicines like anti-VEGF medicine or steroids that are injected into the eye.
Surgical removal of the vitreous gel (vitrectomy) is done when there is bleeding (vitreous hemorrhage) or retinal detachment, which are rare in people with early-stage retinopathy. Vitrectomy is also done when severe scar tissue has formed.
Treatment for diabetic retinopathy is often very effective in preventing, delaying, or reducing vision loss. But it is not a cure for the disease. People who have been treated for diabetic retinopathy need to be monitored frequently by an eye doctor to check for new changes in their eyes. Many people with diabetic retinopathy need to be treated more than once as the condition gets worse.
Also, controlling your blood sugar levels is always important. This is true even if you have been treated for diabetic retinopathy and your eyes are better. In fact, good blood sugar control is especially important in this case so that you can help keep your retinopathy from getting worse.
Ideally, laser treatment should be done early in the course of the disease to prevent serious vision loss rather than to try to treat serious vision loss after it has already developed.
People with diabetes who have any signs of retinopathy need to be examined as soon as possible by an ophthalmologist.
There are steps you can take to reduce your chance of vision loss from diabetic retinopathy and its complications:
The risk for severe retinopathy and vision loss may be even less if you:
Surgical treatment for diabetic retinopathy is removal of the vitreous gel (vitrectomy). Vitrectomy does not cure the disease, but it may improve vision in people who have developed bleeding into the vitreous gel (vitreous hemorrhage), retinal detachment, or severe scar tissue formation.
Unfortunately, by the time some people are diagnosed with retinopathy (especially late-stage retinopathy), it is often too late for vitrectomy to provide much benefit. Even with treatment, vision may continue to decline.
Early detection of retinopathy through dilated eye examinations can help you decide to have surgery when it is most effective.
Vitreous surgery (vitrectomy) for diabetic retinopathy is effective in preventing vision loss when a person has bleeding into the vitreous gel (vitreous hemorrhage) or retinal detachment. But it is not a cure. This surgery is not usually done unless these complications or severe scar tissue has already developed.
After a person has had most of the vitreous gel removed by vitrectomy, surgery to remove scar tissue or to repair a new retinal detachment may be needed.
Vitrectomy may require an overnight hospital stay, but it is sometimes done as outpatient surgery. Your eye doctor will determine if the surgery can be done with local or general anesthesia.
Laser treatment (photocoagulation) can be an effective treatment for diabetic retinopathy. But it does not cure the disease. It can prevent, delay, and sometimes reverse vision loss. Without either laser treatment or surgery, vision loss caused by diabetic retinopathy and its complications may get worse until blindness occurs. So early treatment is vital to slowing vision loss, which can happen quickly.
When diabetic retinopathy causes bleeding (hemorrhage) into the vitreous gel, extensive scar tissue formation, or retinal detachment, surgical removal of the vitreous gel (vitrectomy) may be needed before laser treatment is considered.
Unfortunately, by the time some people are diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, it is often too late for treatment to provide much benefit. Even with treatment, vision will continue to decline.
Early detection of retinopathy through dilated eye examinations can provide the opportunity to have laser treatment when it is most effective.
Anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) drugs have been used to treat age-related macular degeneration with good success. These drugs are being studied for the treatment of diabetic macular edema from diabetic retinopathy. The use of these medicines is very new, and research is ongoing to find out if they are as good as, or better than, laser treatment.
Pan-retinal laser treatment is used to treat several spots on the retina during one or, most often, two sessions. It reduces the risk of serious bleeding and the progression of severe proliferative retinopathy.
Laser photocoagulation can result in some loss of vision, because it destroys some of the nerve cells in the retina and can cause the abnormal blood vessels to go away. With pan-retinal photocoagulation, this most often affects the outside (peripheral) vision, because the laser is directed at that area. Your vision may be worse right after treatment. But vision loss caused by laser treatment is mild compared with the vision loss that may be caused by untreated retinopathy.
|Canadian Diabetes Association|
|1400-522 University Avenue|
|Toronto, ON M5G 2R5|
The Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) is devoted to meeting the needs of people with diabetes in Canada. This organization provides general information about diabetes and its care. It organizes summer camps for young people with diabetes and conducts educational seminars to help people manage their diabetes. The CDA also sells a range of products, including cookbooks, in its stores.
|Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)|
|1929 Bayview Avenue|
|Toronto, ON M4G 3E8|
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) is a voluntary agency dedicated to helping improve the lives of the blind and visually impaired, preventing blindness, and promoting sight enhancement services. The organization offers a variety of publications and educational resources about vision loss and impairment.
|Canadian Ophthalmological Society|
|610-1525 Carling Avenue|
|Ottawa, ON K1Z 8R9|
The Canadian Ophthalmological Society is an association of eye doctors dedicated to helping the public take good care of their eyes and vision. This group provides educational information on eye conditions and diseases and eye safety.
|Health Canada: Diabetes|
This website provides basic information about diabetes, as well as resources for and information about national programs in Canada for monitoring, preventing, and treating diabetes.
|National Aboriginal Diabetes Association (NADA)|
|B1-90 Garry Street|
|Winnipeg, MB R3C 4J4|
The mission of the National Aboriginal Diabetes Association (NADA) is to address diabetes among Aboriginal peoples as a priority health issue. It supports individuals, families, and communities to access resources for diabetes prevention, education, and research in culturally respectful ways; partners with organizations committed to the prevention and management of diabetes; and promotes community wellness as a strategy to prevent diabetes.
- Canadian Diabetes Association Clinical Practice Guidelines Expert Committee (2008). Retinopathy. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 32(Suppl 1): S134–S139. Also available online: http://www.diabetes.ca/files/cpg2008/cpg-2008.pdf.
- Canadian Diabetes Association Clinical Practice Guidelines Expert Committee (2008). Diabetes and pregnancy. 2008 Clinical Practice Guidelines. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 32(Suppl 1): S168–S180. Also available online: http://www.diabetes.ca/documents/2008CPG/36%20DIABETES%20AND%20PREGNANCY-S168-S180.pdf.
Other Works Consulted
- American Diabetes Association (2012). Standards of medical care in diabetes—2012. Diabetes Care, 35(Suppl 1): S11–S63.
- Brownlee M, et al. (2008). Complications of diabetes mellitus: Retinopathy, macular edema, and other ocular complications. In HM Kronenberg et al., eds., Williams Textbook of Endocrinology, 11th ed., pp. 1432–1501. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
- Cavallerano JD, Stanton RM (2010). MIcrovascular complications. In RS Beaser, ed., Joslin's Diabetes Deskbook: A Guide for Primary Care Providers, 2nd ed., pp. 445–473. Boston: Joslin Diabetes Center.
- Dagogo-Jack S (2010). Complications of diabetes mellitus. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 9, chap. 3. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
- Fletcher EC, et al. (2008). Retinal vascular diseases: Diabetic retinopathy. In P Riordan-Eva, JP Whitcher, eds., Vaughan and Asbury's General Ophthalmology, 17th ed., pp. 191–211. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Fong D, et al. (2004). Retinopathy in diabetes. Diabetes Care, 27(Suppl 1): S84–S87.
- Gebel E (2010). Aids for insulin users. Diabetes Forecast, 63(1). Available online: http://forecast.diabetes.org/magazine/features/aids-insulin-users.
- Hammes HP, et al. (2010). Diabetic retinopathy: Targeting vasoregression. Diabetes, 60(1): 9–16. Available online: http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/60/1/9.full.
- Massin P, et al. (2010). Safety and efficacy of ranibizumab in diabetic macular edema (RESOLVE study*). Diabetes Care, 33(11): 2399–2405. Available online: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/33/11/2399.full.pdf.
- Mendrinos E, et al. (2008). Diabetic retinopathy, search date March 2007. Online version of Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
- Nicholson BP, Schachat AP (2010). A review of clinical trials of anti-VEGF agents for diabetic retinopathy. Graefe's Archive of Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology, 248(7): 915–930.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Carol L. Karp, MD - Ophthalmology|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Christopher J. Rudnisky, MD, MPH, FRCSC - Ophthalmology|
|Last Revised||May 11, 2011|
Last Revised: May 11, 2011
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