Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes, and causes damage to the blood vessels in the retina.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy occurs as a complication of diabetes when high blood sugar (glucose) levels cause damage to the retina. The retina is made up of layers of light-detecting cells at the back of the eye. If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can result in blindness. However, it takes a long period of time for the stages of diabetic retinopathy to progress to a point where your vision is affected.

What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

One reason why regular diabetic retinopathy screening is so important is because diabetic retinopathy symptoms are not always noticeable until they have progressed to a more serious stage. Early diabetic retinopathy signs can be detected during these tests, meaning the right treatment can be recommended to prevent vision loss.

You will normally be invited for screening every one or two years and appointments should only last around 40 minutes. During the screening, you will be asked to read from charts and may have eye drops administered. Your optometrist will then take photographs of the back of your eye using a special machine (which doesn’t need to make contact with your eye). They will then review the images for signs of any diseases and notify you of your results in writing within three weeks.

Other symptoms of diabetic retinopathy can include;

  • Gradual deterioration of vision, including blurring or patchiness with your vision
  • Sudden loss of vision
  • Redness or pain in the eye
  • Eye floaters

These symptoms are not necessarily a sign that you have the condition. However, if you experience these and have diabetes, it’s recommended that you contact your GP or an eye specialist for a diabetic retinopathy test.

Types of diabetic retinopathy

Early diabetic retinopathy stages are unlikely to affect vision, but the condition can progress to being sight-threatening. Mild non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (where tiny bulges appear in the blood vessels in the retina) and moderate to severe non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (where the condition becomes more severe and bleeding into the retina occurs) put you at high risk of experiencing vision issues in the future.

The stages of diabetic retinopathy become much more serious though with proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR) and diabetic macular oedema (DMO). PDR sees blood vessels in the retina closing, resulting in a loss of blood supply to this part of the eye. Scar tissue and new, fragile blood vessels then form on the retina. These can lead to a significant amount of bleeding and a high risk of scarring on the retina, retinal detachment and vision loss.

Patients with DMO have leaking or blocked blood vessels in their macula (the central area of the retina responsible for central vision and identifying details). As a result, the tissue can swell and vision is highly likely to be affected. Without treatment, patients with DMO may be unable to drive or read, even if their side vision remains normal.

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