Retinopathy is broadly used to refer to damage to the retina; different diseases can cause retinopathy. One type of retinopathy is diabetic retinopathy and it can occur in individuals with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Diabetes interferes with your body’s ability to use and store sugar and over time, diabetes damages the small blood vessels throughout your body. Sometimes this damage can cause blood vessels to leak and diabetic retinopathy may occur.  The longer you have diabetes, the more likely it is that you will develop diabetic retinopathy. Typically, diabetic retinopathy affects both eyes.

Early detection is key

Early detection and intervention can help prevent significant vision loss from diabetic retinopathy. Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy often go unnoticed until the late stages of the disease and can include blurred vision, sudden loss of vision in one or both eyes, shadows across your field of vision, seeing spots, flashing lights, and difficulty reading or seeing well at night. For this reason, it is recommended that you have a comprehensive eye examination by your ophthalmologist each year.  .

Eye evaluations with particular attention to the retina and macula include a thorough evaluation of patient history, visual acuity measurements, dilation, optical coherence tomography, and measurement of the pressure in your eye. Other tests may include retinal photography to keep a record of your retina’s appearance and fluorescein angiography to check for and locate abnormal blood vessels. All of these exams will allow your doctor to get a complete picture of the health and status of your retina.

What’s your type?

Diabetic retinopathy is classified into two types: Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) and Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR).

NPDR is the early stage of diabetic retinopathy. Blood vessels in the retina become weaker and develop small bulges.  The bulges may leak fluid into the retina and can cause swelling of the macula, the part of the retina responsible what we see directly in front of us, or our central vision.

PDR is the more advanced form of diabetic retinopathy. In an effort to improve blood circulation in the retina, new blood vessels may form. As these new, fragile blood vessels grow and multiply, a number of complications may develop, including leaking and bleeding into the eye, the development of scar tissue that can lead to retinal detachment, and neovascular glaucoma.

Strategies to treat retinopathy

The importance of annual eye exams for individuals with diabetes cannot be overstated. People with diabetic retinopathy may need eye exams more frequently. Interventions can be started before sight is significantly affected, which may help prevent vision loss.

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy depends on the stage of the disease. In the early stages of NPDR, regular monitoring and frequent check-ins with your ophthalmologist may be sufficient. Generally, treatment for diabetic retinopathy is delayed until it begins to progress to PDR.  Laser treatment is one therapeutic intervention and is used to make tiny burns that stop abnormal blood vessels from growing and leaking.  The goal of laser treatment is to prevent the development of new vessels, not to regain lost vision. Injections of anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) are also used to help reduce the swelling, leakage, and growth of abnormal cells. Surgical removal of the vitreous gel and the abnormal cells causing bleeding may also be part of your treatment plan.