Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness today. Knowing what it is, what causes it, and how it's treated is critical for anyone with diabetes.
What is diabetic retinopathy?
Light focuses on an area in the back known as the retina. That is where special cells translate light waves into signals that the brain understands. This part of the eye receives a steady flow of blood and nutrients from microscopic blood vessels.
These tiny blood vessels can sustain damage when glucose levels in the blood become too high for too long. This happens with unmanaged or untreated diabetes. The damaged blood vessels can burst, leak, or grow abnormally. That is diabetic retinopathy.
The most common test for diabetic retinopathy is a dilated eye exam. The eye doctor puts drops in the eye, which cause the pupils to dilate. The doctor examines the back of the eye for signs of leaking blood vessels, pale fat deposits, or swelling. All of these are signs of diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetic retinopathy has no obvious symptoms in the first stages.
In the advanced stages of the disease, the most common symptoms are blurred vision and floating spots. The spots occur due to specks of blood floating in the liquid in front of the retina.
The Four Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy
This eye condition starts out mild and undetectable. In more advanced stages, it can cause loss of sight and blindness.
Mild Non-proliferative Retinopathy - Minor leakage in some vessels with swelling in others.
Moderate Non-proliferative Retinopathy - Some vessels have collapsed or been blocked.
Severe Non-proliferative Retinopathy - The retina is being starved for nourishment due to several blocked vessels.
Proliferative Retinopathy - New blood vessels are growing in the retina to provide nourishment. These fragile, abnormal vessels can cause further leakage and damage.
What causes loss of sight with diabetic retinopathy?
Proliferative retinopathy can cause severe and ongoing damage to the retina, leading to loss of sight.
Macular edema is another cause. There is a spot in the retina, known as the macula, where sharp, straight-ahead vision happens. As blood vessels burst, fluid can build up behind this area of the retina. This causes the macula to swell, causing blurred vision.
How is diabetic retinopathy treated?
In the early stages, the patient is advised to control blood sugar levels as well as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Lasers are used to treat severe symptoms. To treat proliferative retinopathy, the doctor will use a laser to shrink and eventually eliminate the abnormal blood vessels. To treat macular edema, the doctor uses a laser to burn around the edge of the macula to slow leakage and to reduce swelling.
Annual eye exams are critical for detecting diabetic retinopathy in its earliest stages. Don't wait until your vision starts to blur to seek treatment.