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Patient and Practioner’s Guide to Diabetic Retinopathy

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As the top cause of blindness in the United States, diabetic retinopathy is a condition where an individual’s high blood sugar causes damage to blood vessels in the retina. The earliest symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include dark areas of vision, blurriness, floaters, and difficulty perceiving colors. 

However, if diabetic retinopathy is left unchecked, it can lead to blindness. Fortunately, there are several treatments designed to remedy diabetic retinopathy. Let's take a closer look at diabetic retinopathy. 

What Is Diabetic Retinopathy Caused?

If you have diabetes and your blood sugar is allowed to remain elevated for extended periods, it can result in the retina's blood vessels being blocked. In response, your eye will attempt to grow new blood vessels, but these new blood vessels will not develop properly. The blood vessels will weaken, which is when fluid and blood are leaked into your retina. 

This can result in another condition called macular edema and can make your vision worse. The macula is part of the retina responsible for allowing you to see fine detail and colors. The leaking fluid can cause the macula to swell and blur your vision.  

As the condition worsens, more blood vessels become blocked. At the same time, scar tissue will build up due to the newly grown blood vessels. This additional pressure can cause your retina to detach or tear, which will lead to blindness. It can cause other eye conditions like cataracts or glaucoma that may also result in blindness. 

Types of Diabetic Retinopathy

In general, there are two different types diabetic retinopathy:

  1. Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) is a disease in the earliest stages where symptoms are nonexistent or very mild. With NPDR, the retina's blood vessels are simply weakened. Micro aneurysms — tiny bulges in the blood vessels — may cause fluid to leak into the retina, which can lead to macular swelling. 

  2. Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR) is the more advanced type of the disease. At this stage, the condition causes problems with circulation that deprives the retina of oxygen. Due to this depraved state, new blood vessels will attempt to grow in the retina and into the vitreous, which is the gel-like fluid in the rear of the eye. These newly developed and irregular blood vessels may leak into the vitreous and cause clouded vision. 

What Are the Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

Most people do not experience symptoms of diabetic retinopathy until the disease has progressed and become serious. However, some of the symptoms include:

  • Colorblindness or the inability to see colors
  • A loss of central vision, which is used when you drive and read
  • Blurred vision
  • Black spots or holes in your vision
  • Small spots or floaters in your vision that are created by bleeding

Who Are the At-Risk Groups for Diabetic Retinopathy? 

As the name suggests, anyone with a type of diabetes — gestational, type 2, or type 1 — is at a higher risk to develop diabetic retinopathy. The likelihood of developing the condition increases the longer you have diabetes. Approximately 50% of Americans with diabetes will have some stage of diabetic retinopathy. Of this number, only half of them are aware they have the condition. Other factors that can increase your likelihood of developing the condition include:

  • Being Native American, African American, or Hispanic
  • The use of tobacco
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Pregnancy

Is There a Treatment for Diabetic Retinopathy?

According to a 2018 American Eye-Q Survey conducted by the American Optometric Association, over 1/3 of Americans didn’t know that a comprehensive eye exam is the only way to determine if diabetes would cause blindness. For this reason, it’s critical for everyone with diabetes to have a comprehensive dilated eye exam annually, which can lead to early detection and limit the likelihood of vision loss. 

The treatment options for the condition vary based on the extent and stage of the disease. One treatment is laser surgery, which can be used to seal blood vessels that may be leaking or to prevent other blood vessels from leaking. Another option is to inject medication into the eye to reduce inflammation or prevent the formation of new blood vessels. 

Those who have advanced diabetic retinopathy may require a surgical procedure to extract and replace the vitreous. If there is retinal detachment — the separation of the light-receiving lining in the rear of the eye — surgery may be required as well to repair it.

How Can I Prevent Diabetic Retinopathy?

If you have diabetes or have any of the previously mentioned risk factors, there are certain things you can to slow the development of diabetic retinopathy or prevent it outright. First and foremost, it’s critical you take all prescribed medication to manage any diabetic condition. You should also make sure to stick to any special diets to help keep your glucose levels in line. Additional steps you can take include:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Make sure you manage your blood pressure
  • Manage your cholesterol
  • Avoid drinking alcohol
  • Avoid smoking

Contact Keeler Ophthalmic Instruments

For over 100 years, Keeler has been manufacturing cutting edge equipment and empowering optometric professionals to treat conditions like diabetic retinopathy. Contact us today for the best ophthalmic equipment and instrumentation.

About the Author Eugene VanArsdale

Eugene is the Director of Marketing Communications at Keeler Instruments. He has been with Keeler since 1982 and is co-holder of two patents for the company. Eugene has a true passion for the eye care industry and has dedicated himself to understanding the ins and outs of the optometric and ophthalmic equipment market.