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Diabetic Retinopathy: Frequently Asked Questions

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 29 million people afflicted by diabetes in the United States. Individuals with diabetes cannot properly process glucose, which leads to elevated blood sugar levels. If left untreated, elevated blood sugar levels can lead to a number of serious complications, including diabetic retinopathy. If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with diabetes, here are a few questions you might have about this condition:

What Exactly is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Your retina, which is the three layered membrane found near the back of your eye, is responsible for converting images and light into signals that are sent to the brain. When the multiple blood vessels found in the retina are exposed to high levels of blood sugar for a long period of time, it can lead to severe damage.

The symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Spots or floaters
  • Problems seeing colors
  • Dark spots in your vision

Depending on the severity of an individual's diabetic retinopathy, they can suffer with anything from limited vision to complete blindness.

What Are the Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy?

Although every patient is different, typically an individual will progress through one, multiple or all of the four stages of diabetic retinopathy. Here are the four stages of this disorder:

  • Mild nonproliferative retinopathy – During this first stage, small microaneurysms, or swelling in the blood vessels, occur. This can cause the blood vessels to leak into the retina.
  • Moderate nonproliferative retinopathy – As the condition progresses, the blood vessels can swell and take on a different shape. The blood vessels may also no longer be able to carry blood to the retina.
  • Severe nonproliferative retinopathy – During the third stage, the blood vessels may swell even more, which makes it even more difficult for blood to reach the retina.
  • Proliferative diabetic retinopathy – In the final stage, new blood vessels that grow in the retina are fragile, which can cause them to leak blood into the area. It's this leakage that leads to vision issues, or complete blindness.

How is Diabetic Retinopathy Treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for diabetic retinopathy. However, there are several treatments available. The treatment prescribed for the disorder will depend upon the stage and severity of the disease. During the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, your doctor and ophthalmologist will monitor the progression of the illness. In many cases, there is no treatment required.

Instead, during these early stages, you will be urged to control your diabetes through careful monitoring and control of your blood sugar levels.

As the disorder progresses, there are several treatment options available, including:

  • Photocoagulation – Otherwise known as focal laser treatment, this procedure involves the use of lasers on the blood vessels of the retina. The lasers help close the leaking blood vessels, which prevents the introduction of blood and other fluids into the retina.
  • Vitrectomy – During the later stages of diabetic retinopathy, the doctor may choose to perform a procedure called a vitrectomy. The doctor will use an instrument to make a small incision in the middle portion of the eye. This helps drain any fluid that is putting pressure on the retina. The doctor may also remove scar tissue that is pulling on the retina as well.

Whatever procedure your doctor chooses, they will recommend seeing your ophthalmologist on a regular basis to track the progression of the disorder. Early intervention, treatment and proper control of your blood sugar levels are the best ways to help prevent the symptoms associated with diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is a serious disorder that can lead to severe vision loss, or even blindness. If you suspect your or someone you love is suffering with diabetic retinopathy, don't hesitate to contact your doctor or ophthalmologist right away. If you have further questions about eye health or visions problems, continue reading more.