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Diabetic retinopathy

Contents of this page:


Slit-lamp exam
Slit-lamp exam
Diabetic retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy

Alternative Names    Return to top

Retinopathy - diabetic

Definition    Return to top

Diabetic retinopathy is damage to the eye's retina that occurs with long-term diabetes.

Causes    Return to top

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by damage to blood vessels of the retina, the light-sensitive inner layer of the eye.

There are two types: non-proliferative or proliferative.

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in working-age Americans. People with both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes are at risk for this condition.

Having more severe diabetes for a longer period of time increases the chance of getting retinopathy. Retinopathy is also more likely to occur earlier and be more severe if your diabetes is poorly controlled. Almost everyone who has had diabetes for more than 30 years will show signs of diabetic retinopathy.

Symptoms    Return to top

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include:

Many people with early diabetic retinopathy have no symptoms before major bleeding occurs in the eye. This is why everyone with diabetes should have regular eye exams.

Exams and Tests    Return to top

In nearly all cases, the health care provider can diagnose diabetic retinopathy by dilating the pupils with eye drops and then carefully examining the retina. A retinal photography or fluorescein angiography test may also be used.

Treatment    Return to top

Treatment usually does not reverse damage that has already occurred, but it will keep the disease from getting worse. Drugs are being developed that keep abnormal blood vessels from growing in patients with proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

Laser surgery or photocoagulation may be used to keep vessels from leaking or to get rid of abnormal fragile vessels.

A surgical procedure called vitrectomy is used when there is bleeding (hemorrhage) into the eye. It may also be used to repair retinal detachment.

Support Groups    Return to top

American Diabetes Association -

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse -

Prevent Blindness America -

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

You can improve your outcome by keeping good control of your blood sugar and blood pressure.

Diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness without treatment.

Possible Complications    Return to top

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call for an appointment with an eye doctor (ophthalmologist) if you have diabetes and you have not seen an ophthalmologist in the past year.

Prevention    Return to top

Tight control of blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol is very important for preventing diabetic retinopathy.

People with diabetes should begin having eye examinations as follows:

After the first exam, most patients should have a yearly eye exam.

If you are beginning a new exercise program or are planning to get pregnant, have your eyes examined. Avoid resistance or high-impact exercises, which can strain already weakened blood vessels in the eyes.

References    Return to top

Sydorova M, Lee MS. Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Levels in Vitreous and Serum of Patients with either Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy or Proliferative Vitreoretinopathy. Ophthalmic Res. 2005 Jun 29;37(4):188-190.

Singerman L. Findings of the Phase 2 Trial of the Safety and Efficacy of Pegaptanib Sodium (Macugen™) in Patients With Diabetic Macular Edema. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci 2005;46: E-Abstract 4674.

Rosenblatt RJ, Benson WJ. Diabetic Retinopathy. In: Yanoff M, ed. Opthalmology. 2nd ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby; 2004;877-887.

American Diabetes Association (ADA). Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2008;31:S1-S12.

Update Date: 4/22/2008

Updated by: Andrew A. Dahl, M.D., F.A.C.S., Director of Ophthalmology Training, Institute for Family Health, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, New York College of Medicine, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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