“Diabetic retinopathy involves damage to the retina as a result of the complications of diabetes. Proper monitoring and treatment is crucial in order to control vision loss.”
Dr Devinder Chauhan discusses diabetic retinopathy
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Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes (type 1, type 2 and gestational) that can lead to loss of vision and eventually blindness. It is caused by damage to the small blood vessels (capillaries) that supply the retina – the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye – and usually affects both eyes. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of blindness in working-age Australians, affecting around 15% of people with diabetes.
The condition develops slowly and may be completely asymptomatic until vision is suddenly lost. Because of this, regular eye examinations with your optometrist or ophthalmologist are critical. If diabetic retinopathy is detected, you will be referred to a retinal ophthalmologist for further testing and management. The earlier the condition is diagnosed and treatment initiated, the better – this may help prevent severe vision loss.
What are the causes?
The persistently high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes weaken the retinal blood vessels and cause them to leak fluid or bleed.
Are there different types?
There are three types of diabetic retinopathy
What are the risk factors?
Risk factors for the development (and severity) of diabetic retinopathy include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking cigarettes. Pregnancy and kidney disease are also associated with greater risk. Another risk factor is the length of time that a person has had diabetes. You do not need to be taking insulin to be at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy – it can affect anyone who has been diagnosed with diabetes.
What are the symptoms?
Noticeable vision loss may not occur until the disease is quite advanced, with early stages often remaining symptom-free. Hence, regular eye examinations with your optometrist or ophthalmologist are a crucial part of your diabetes care.
Symptoms can include:
How is it diagnosed?
Your ophthalmologist will examine both retinas by performing a dilated eye exam – this involves using eye drops to widen your pupils and allow a clear view of the back of each eye.
Other tests that may be performed:
How is it treated?
Your ophthalmologist will consult with you to determine the most appropriate treatment for your situation. The latest treatments for diabetic retinopathy allow vision to be at least partially recovered in most cases.
Optimal management of your diabetes (e.g. blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol) is critical in preventing, and delaying the progression of, diabetic retinopathy. However, this is unlikely to restore any vision that has already been lost. Consequently, it is important to keep any appointments with the rest of your diabetes healthcare team (e.g. GP, diabetes educator, endocrinologist) in addition to having regular eye exams.
Treatment options for diabetic retinopathy:
Click here for a list of our specialist retinal clinics.
Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. You should have a comprehensive discussion with your ophthalmologist before making a decision to proceed.