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What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Over time, diabetes can damage small blood vessels throughout the body. This damage can cause foot ulcers, nerve numbness and kidney failure. In the eye, it can cause retinal damage, known as diabetic retinal disease, or diabetic retinopathy.

Anyone with diabetes is at risk for diabetic retinopathy, which causes vision loss due to two major issues: swelling and bleeding. Blood vessels in the eye sometimes leak fluid causing the retina to swell. This swelling causes blurred vision.

In severe cases the retina becomes starved for oxygen sparking the growth of blood vessels from the retina or optic nerve into the vitreous jelly that fills the inside of the eye. These fragile vessels can cause bleeding inside the eye and block light from reaching the retina. The result is impaired vision and possibly severe scarring, which can lead to retinal detachment.

Pregnancy can sometimes worsen diabetic eye disease, so women who have diabetes during pregnancy should be examined each trimester.

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy has no symptoms in its earliest, most treatable stages. By the time it is discovered the disease may be advanced and difficult to treat. Diabetic patients should have regular examinations even if their vision is completely normal.

When macular edema (swelling) develops central vision becomes blurred which can affect activities like reading and driving.

When a hemorrhage (bleeding) occurs in the eye, spots or streaks of blood can be seen floating in your vision. If bleeding is more severe, or if it continues, a dense fog will blur vision. Occasionally, the blood will be so thick that a person will be able to see only light and dark. Often, blood will dissolve slowly over a period of weeks or months, and vision may improve. Sometimes, however, blood in the vitreous jelly will not clear without surgery.

In This Section

Treatments and Procedures

Learn more about the treatment and prevention options available for diabetic retinopathy.

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