Diabetic Retinopathy | Complications of the Eye Resulting From Diabetes

close up of pupil with Diabetic Retinopathy

Did you know diabetes could lead to vision problems and eye disorders? You may remember having blurred vision before you were diagnosed, since it’s one of the first early warning signs. Diabetic retinopathy is one such occurrence.

It’s also common for your eyes to be affected if you are not properly monitoring and managing your insulin levels. However, if you ignore the warning signs and symptoms of an eye condition, it can eventually cause severe problems including blindness.

If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes and are concerned about your vision, we’ll answer your questions in this article. We’ll explain what causes diabetic retinopathy, the associated symptoms, prevention, and treatment.

What Causes Diabetic Retinopathy?

If you do not regularly check your blood sugar levels and administer insulin accordingly, you have a greater chance of developing eye problems from your diabetic condition. Retinopathy is slowly developing and progressive, so you may not recognize the problem immediately.

According to the American Optometric Association, blood vessels in your retina can get damaged from too much sugar in your blood stream. Once these vessels become damaged, the retinal tissues swell, which can cause blood or other fluids to leak from your eyes.

Diabetics who have high blood sugar for extended periods of time is known as hyperglycemia. Hyperglycemia can impair your vision since the presence of fluid changes the curvature of your eyes’ lenses.

There are two types of diabetic retinopathy:

Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR)

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, once patients develop proliferative diabetic retinopathy, poor circulation causes an oxygen deprivation in the retina. When this happens, it is common for more severe fluids and blood to leak in your eyes, which causes cloudy vision.

Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR)

People with non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy are in the early stages of the condition. They may suffer from mild symptoms and not think much of it. During this stage, their eyes will experience leaking and swelling while the blood vessels in their retina slowly start to get weaker.

It’s less common for people to develop diabetic retinopathy in their early years with diabetes. Typically, the longer you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, the higher your chances get of getting retinopathy.

According to the US National Library of Medicine, people with a Hispanic or African American heritage have a greater chance of suffering from retinopathy. High blood pressure and high cholesterol levels also put patients at a higher risk. Pregnant women with diabetes are also at risk for having eye complications such as retinopathy.

What are the Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy?

In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, known as NPDR, patients may exhibit mild symptoms or even no symptoms at all in some cases. As time passes and proliferative diabetic retinopathy develops, the signs and symptoms will worsen.

According to the Mayo Clinic Organization, these are the most predominant symptoms of diabetic retinopathy:

  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of vision
  • Spots in your line of sight
  • Dark strings or “floaters” impairing your vision
  • Trouble seeing and distinguishing colors
  • Dark areas in your vision
  • Vision which fluctuates
  • Complete loss of sight

If you have diabetes and start to experience one or more of these symptoms, consult with your doctor right away before the condition worsens.


Doctors will take a look at your medical history to help diagnose this condition. They will have to examine other health factors which could be the cause of your vision problems before they assume it is retinopathy from your type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

During a comprehensive eye exam, your optometrist will determine how much your central vision has been affecting with visual acuity measurements. They will also do a refraction test, which will help conclude if you need a new prescription for your glasses.

The American Journal of Ophthalmology explains retinal photography is necessary to track the status of your eye. If your doctor notices severe changes over time, it will help with the diagnosis. The Journal continues saying fluorescein angiography is used to determine if any abnormal blood vessels are growing in the retina.

Your eye doctor will also perform tests to measure the pressure within your eye and dilate your pupils for a more accurate retina evaluation. These tests will also focus on the macula structure of your eye in addition to the retina.

Treating Diabetic Retinopathy

According to the National Eye Institute, diabetic retinopathy is treated with scatter laser surgery called pan retinal photocoagulation or pan retnial laser surgery. These treatments use thousands of tiny laser burns in the area around your retina and macula.

The purpose of these burns is to shrink the abnormal blood vessels impairing your vision. Most of the time it takes multiple sessions to complete the process, but it’s possible to finish the surgery in one session. Scatter laser surgery helps improve central vision but could damage your peripheral vision, night vision, and ability to see color.

A vitrectomy is another form of surgery is to treat PDR, according to the American Society of Retina Specialists. The procedure removes clear gel forming in the center of your eye. In most cases, doctors resort to a vitrectomy for patients suffering from severe bleeding.

You will need to stay in the hospital overnight after receiving this surgery. It’s common for patients to cover their eyes with patches for up to a week to reduce inflammation and the risk of infection.

Tips to Prevent Retinopathy

Diagnosing the condition in the early stages is imperative for keeping your vision. According to UC Davis Health, early detection minimizes the risk of blindness by 95%. If you have diabetes, you should schedule an appointment with your optometrist on an annual basis, and more frequently if you have eye problems so they can monitor your progression.

Checking your blood sugar levels frequently can also prevent retinopathy. If your insulin levels are under control, increased blood sugar levels won’t damage your eyes and damage your retina to cause vision problems.