Diabetic Retinopathy – Symptoms, Treatment and Detection

People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are at risk of eye disease, including diabetic retinopathy. But what is diabetic retinopathy, and how is it treated? Learn from Bailey Weber Wisner’s Dr. Jeffrey McMahon.

What Is Diabetic Retinopathy? How Does It Develop?

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of visual impairment in people with diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when diabetes affects the blood vessels in the retina and the inner layers of the eye behind the retina, among other structures, due to prolonged high blood sugar levels. When these blood vessels become damaged, several problems that threaten vision—both temporarily and permanently—can arise.

There is a spectrum of disease caused by diabetes, ranging from mild to much more severe and even vision threatening. For this reason, it is important to seek an eye exam and regularly speak with your ophthalmologist about your eye health.

Is Diabetic Retinopathy More Common in People with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes?

One of the risk factors for diabetic retinopathy is the duration of time that the patient has had diabetes. The longer someone has had diabetes, the more likely they are to suffer from diabetic retinopathy or other diabetic eye conditions. Some studies have suggested that because of this, diabetic eye disease (including diabetic retinopathy) is more likely to occur in type 1 diabetics than in those with type 2. This does not mean, however, that type 2 diabetics are not at risk. Anyone with diabetes should consider themselves at risk for developing diabetic eye disease.

How Is Diabetic Retinopathy Detected and Treated?

Because of the risk that both type 1 and type 2 diabetics have of developing diabetic eye disease, including diabetic retinopathy, a number of organizations, including the American Diabetes Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology, recommend that patients diagnosed with diabetes have routine eye exams at least annually. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, your eye doctor will advise you if you need more frequent check-ups.

In the past, diabetic retinopathy was harder to treat. Today, however, there are more therapeutic options. These may help slow the progression of diabetic retinopathy, even halting it and reversing some of the damage caused to the eyes in select cases. While these treatments can help patients with diabetic eye disease, they do not treat the underlying condition that caused them—diabetes. In order to prevent the worsening of their vision, patients should continue with treatment for diabetes, even if problems with their vision disappear.

Are There Early Warning Signs of Diabetic Retinopathy?

Vision changes are often nonspecific and can be hard for patients to detect themselves. That is one of the reasons that people with diabetes should have regular eye exams, as they are at a higher risk of developing vision problems that they might not detect themselves. These regular eye exams help detect problems before they cause any permanent damage. We also recommend any patient—those diagnosed with diabetes and those not—to seek an appointment with their eye doctor if they notice any acute changes to their vision.

Person measuring their blood sugar level