Diabetic Retinopathy

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is commonly known as a complication of diabetes.

Anyone who has type 1 or type 2 diabetes has the potential for developing the disease. 

On average, one in three people with diabetes will develop some form of diabetic eye disease.

Diabetes is referred to as a ‘systemic disease,’ which means that it affects the entire body, rather than a single organ or body part. One of the long-term effects of diabetes is damage to large and small blood vessels. The smallest and most delicate blood vessels in your body are in your eyes, supplying the retina with oxygen and nutrients. When these blood vessels are damaged, the cells around them can start to die. This is what is referred to as diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is a ‘progressive disease,’ meaning that it gets worse over time. Although some effects, such as blurriness and distortions, may be mild or subtle at the start, without treatment, diabetic retinopathy can cause loss of vision and blindness. 


What are the types of diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is classified into two types. Not everyone will experience diabetic retinopathy in the same way, and the type you have may change as the disease progresses.

At first, there may be no symptoms and no pain, possibly just mild vision problems. This type is called ‘non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy’ (NPDR). In this early stage of the disease, the blood vessels in your retina develop small swollen spots called ‘blebs’.

As the disease progresses, it may evolve into ‘proliferative diabetic retinopathy’ (PDR). At this stage, circulation problems deprive the retina of oxygen. Then, new, fragile blood vessels begin to grow in the retina and into the vitreous – the gel-like fluid that fills the back of the eye. The new blood vessels are abnormal, weak and may leak blood into the vitreous, clouding vision.


What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

Because diabetic retinopathy seldom causes pain and symptoms are not always apparent in the earliest stages, retina damage can occur long before there are noticeable signs. As the condition progresses, you might develop:

  • Floaters (spots or dark strings floating in your vision)
  • Blurred vision
  • Fluctuating vision
  • Dark or empty areas in your vision
  • Vision loss


When should you see your eye doctor?

Despite the fact that the duration of diabetes is considered one of the strongest predictors of diabetic retinopathy, studies show that nearly half of all Australians with diabetes are not having regular diabetes eye checks.

If you have diabetes, you should visit an eye doctor (optometrist) – even if you don’t have any symptoms of eye disease or vision impairment. 

Having diabetes doesn’t automatically mean you will have vision loss. Taking an active role in diabetes management can go a long way toward preventing complications. Consulting an optometrist should be an established part of any sensible diabetes management plan.


What will your eye doctor do?

An eye doctor (optometrist) will want to review your medical history and may request your diabetes care plan from your general practitioner.

To detect diabetic retinopathy, your optometrist will perform a dilated eye exam. During this examination, drops are placed in your eyes to dilate your pupils, which will help your optometrist see inside your eyes for any signs of retinopathy. 

Your optometrist can pick up early signs of the condition by taking photos of your retina and can establish a schedule for future eye examinations. All of these procedures are painless and simple.


What are your treatment options?

While modern eye surgery has come a long way, there is, unfortunately, no cure for diabetic retinopathy. However, it can be diagnosed and slowed down if caught in the early stages. The treatments concentrate on stopping the progression of the disease and preserving vision. Typically, the earlier the detection, the less invasive the treatment. As these treatments require surgery, your optometrist may need to refer you to an ophthalmologist.

For more information

Your local Eyecare Plus optometrist will provide you with all the eye health information you need about diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetes Australia is the national body for people affected by all types of diabetes, and a respected and valued source of information and advice.

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