Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes and a leading cause of blindness. It occurs when diabetes damages the tiny blood vessels inside the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. A healthy retina is necessary for good vision.
If you have diabetic retinopathy, at first you may notice no changes to your vision. But over time, diabetic retinopathy can get worse and cause vision loss. Diabetic retinopathy usually affects both eyes.
What are the stages of diabetic retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy has four stages:
1. Mild Nonproliferative Retinopathy. At this earliest stage, microaneurysms occur. They are small areas of balloon-like swelling in the retina’s tiny blood vessels.
2 .Moderate Nonproliferative Retinopathy. As the disease progresses, some blood vessels that nourish the retina are blocked.
3. Severe Nonproliferative Retinopathy. Many more blood vessels are blocks, depriving several areas of the retina with their blood supply. These areas of the retina send signals to the body to grow new blood vessels for nourishment.
4. Proliferative Retinopathy. At this advanced stage, the signals sent by the retina for nourishment trigger the growth of new blood vessels. This condition is called proliferative retinopathy. These new blood vessels are abnormal and fragile. They grow along the retina and along the surface of the clear, vitreous gel that fills the inside of the eye.
By themselves, these blood vessels do not cause symptoms or vision loss. However, they have thin, fragile walls. If they leak blood, severe vision loss and even blindness can result.
Who is at risk for diabetic retinopathy?
All people with diabetes—both type 1 and type 2—are at risk. That’s why everyone with diabetes should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Between 40 to 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy. If you have diabetic retinopathy, your doctor can recommend treatment to help prevent its progression.
During pregnancy, diabetic retinopathy may be a problem for women with diabetes. To protect vision, every pregnant woman with diabetes should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam as soon as possible. Your doctor may recommend additional exams during your pregnancy.
How does diabetic retinopathy cause vision loss?
Blood vessels damaged from diabetic retinopathy can cause vision loss in two ways:
1. Fragile, abnormal blood vessels can develop and leak blood into the center of the eye, blurring vision. This is proliferative retinopathy and is the fourth and most advanced stage of the disease.
2. Fluid can leak into the center of the macula, the part of the eye where sharp, straight-ahead vision occurs. The fluid makes the macula swell, blurring vision. This condition is called macula edema. It can occur at any stage of diabetic retinopathy, although it is more likely to occur as the disease progresses. About half of the people with proliferative retinopathy also have macular edema.
How are macular edema and diabetic retinopathy detected?
Macular edema and diabetic retinopathy are detected during a comprehensive eye exam that includes:
Visual acuity test. This eye chart test measures how well you see at various distances.
Dilated eye exam. Drops are placed in your eyes to widen, or dilate, the pupils. Your eye care professional uses a special magnifying lens to examine your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems. After the exam, you close-up vision may remain blurred for several hours.
Tonometry. An instrument measures the pressure inside the eye. Numbing drops may be applied to your eye for this test.
Your eye care professional checks your retina for early signs of the disease, including:
- Leaking blood vessels
- Retinal swelling (macular edema)
- Pale, fatty deposits on the retina—signs of leaking blood vessels
- Damaged nerve tissue
- Any changes to the blood vessels
If your eye care professional believes you need treatment for macular edema, he or she may suggest a fluorescein angiogram. In this test, a special dye is injected into your arm. Pictures are taken as the dye passes through the blood vessels in your retina. The test allows your eye care professional to identify any leaking blood vessels and recommend treatment.