What is diabetic retinopathy and are you at risk of developing it?

18 January 2022

Author: Kate Green

diabetic retinopathy

What is diabetic retinopathy?


Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition caused by complications in the eye, occurring as a result of diabetes. With diabetes, your blood sugar levels can be much higher than a safe level, damaging your retina (the back of your eye). Your retina is fed nutrients by a network of blood vessels which begin to bulge slightly as the early stages of diabetic retinopathy begin. When the blood vessels become blocked, your eyes create new, thinner, less effective blood vessels which can leak fluid into your eye. Diabetic retinopathy typically occurs slowly and it is treatable, but if left untreated, it can eventually lead to blindness.


As it progresses, diabetic retinopathy manifests itself in different stages. After the beginning stages of the condition with a slight bulge of the retina’s blood vessels, you will experience early diabetic retinopathy. This is when the bulging vessels begin to bleed into the eye and larger retinal vessels dilate and become irregular in size. As more blood vessels become blocked, the more serious the condition becomes. You might also experience the leaking of some fluid and blood into the retina, appearing as dark spots or string-like lines across your visual field.


Advanced diabetic retinopathy involves loss of vision due to scar tissue and weak blood vessels which easily break, leading to retinal bleeding. This bleeding is more significant than that of bleeding in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, and it can even interfere with your eye’s fluid levels. This in turn can lead to an increase in eye pressure, as well as having blood vessels leak into your eye’s vitreous, resulting in blurry vision and floaters in your visual field.


Who is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy?


Diabetic retinopathy affects people with diabetes and the longer you have had diabetes, the greater your risk is of developing diabetic retinopathy. The higher your blood sugar levels are, the more likely you are to develop diabetic retinopathy, but you can also reduce your risk by ensuring your blood sugar levels are stable and are kept at a healthy level. The main risk factors for developing diabetic retinopathy are:

  • Anyone with type 1 and type 2 diabetes
  • Pregnant women with pre-existing diabetes or gestational diabetes
  • People with high cholesterol
  • People with elevated blood pressure
  • Smokers


The better controlled your diabetes is, the lower your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Ensuring that you get regular exercise (150 minutes a week) and eat a healthy diet should go a long way to reducing your diabetic retinopathy susceptibility.


What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?


There are a number of symptoms which could indicate that you have developed diabetic retinopathy. If you find yourself suffering with any of the below symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Impaired night vision
  • Blurry vision
  • Floaters
  • Vision loss
  • Eye pain
  • Red eyes


Ideally, your diabetic retinopathy will be detected before any symptoms become apparent. All people with diabetes are offered annual screening appointments to monitor their eye health, from the age of 12 onwards. Your eyes will be dilated for this examination and the professional conducting it will take photos of the back of your eye to assess any changes to the retina. Having your eyes checked regularly should ensure that you don’t experience too much visual damage or loss before treatment can be provided. If you have already been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, you may be recommended to have a dilated eye exam every 2-4 months to monitor the progression of the condition.


How can you treat diabetic retinopathy?


The most crucial thing to remember when it comes to discussing treatment for diabetic retinopathy is that nothing can restore any vision lost as a result of the condition. Progression of the disease can be slowed or stopped by medication but nothing can rectify the loss of sight.


Laser treatment – different to the refractive surgery we offer at Optimax – can reduce the swelling in your retina. The laser is applied to the blood vessels in your retina to shrink them and prevent them from leaking further. You may even be recommended specific eye injections to slow down the progression of diabetic retinopathy, or your doctor might suggest a vitrectomy. This is a type of surgery during which the doctor removes the vitreous (the gel-like liquid in your eye) and replaces it with a different substance. This helps to remove any blood or scarring in the vitreous which was leaked from blood vessels, hopefully improving your vision in the process.


What other conditions can be caused by diabetic retinopathy?


Diabetic retinopathy can also trigger other eye conditions. Having diabetes increases your risk of developing cataracts by 2-5 times, and doubles your risk of open-angle glaucoma. You are also at risk of a retinal detachment if you suffer from diabetic retinopathy as the scarring caused by the condition can cause the retina to pull away from the back of your eye.


You can read in more depth about these eye conditions on our blog:


Above all, it’s crucial that you control your blood sugar levels by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding smoking. Your sight and overall health are so closely interlinked, so controlling the areas you can is very important in preserving and protecting your vision.

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