What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

High blood sugar levels in those with diabetes can damage blood vessels in the retina, the lining at the back of the eye that contains the light-sensitive cells responsible for transmitting visual information to the brain via the optic nerve. This damage is referred to as diabetic retinopathy.

Types of Diabetic Retinopathy

There are two types of diabetic retinopathy:

Nonproliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (NPDR) is an early stage of diabetic eye disease. Mild NPDR is common with among people with diabetes, and it does not usually affect vision. However, two forms of NPDR can cause vision loss:

  • Macular edema is the buildup of fluid in the macula – the central part of the retina that allows for sharp, central vision – caused by leaking blood vessels in the retina. This buildup causes the macula to swell, which distorts vision. Macular edema is the most common cause of vision loss in those with diabetes and can be mild to severe.
  • Macular ischemia occurs when the blood vessels in the macula become closed. The lack of blood supply prevents the macula from working properly and causes central vision to become blurry.

Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (PDR) is characterized by abnormal new blood vessels growing on the surface of the retina (neovascularization). The newly grown blood vessels are fragile and leak, causing a vitreous hemorrhage in which the blood leaks into the clear, gel-like substance of the eye. This can cause a few floaters that interfere with vision to a small degree, or it can block all vision in the affected eye if the hemorrhage is large enough.

The neovascularization associated with PDR can also create scar tissue. If this scar tissue shrinks, it can wrinkle and pull on the retina. Wrinkling of the macular can cause distortions in central vision. If the pull of the scaring is strong enough it can cause a tractional retinal detachment, which can cause severe vision loss or blindness.

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy symptoms are typically hard to notice at first, but as the condition progresses, symptoms can develop that include:

  • An increasing number of floaters
  • Blurred vision
  • Blank or dark areas in your field of vision
  • Poor night vision
  • Colors appear faded or washed out

Diagnosing Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed via a comprehensive eye examination during which your eyes will be dilated and the retina examined using an ophthalmoscope. You may also undergo a flourescein angiography. This is a test in which dye is injected into your arm and travels to the blood vessels in your eyes where a specialized camera takes photographs to determine if and where leaks are occurring.

Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment at the Dean McGee Eye Institute

For 45 years, the Dean McGee Eye Institute has been on the cutting-edge of eye care. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of diabetic retinopathy or you have been advised to see a retina specialist, our team of ophthalmologists who specialize in diseases of the retina and vitreous would love to provide an eye examination to determine if treatment is needed. Call 405.271.1092 or 800.787.9014 to make your appointment.