Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the small blood vessels in the retina are damaged as a result of diabetes. Poor blood sugar control is a major risk factor. Symptoms may be very mild at first, but can include blurred vision, floaters, dark patches or blind spots that don’t improve with glasses. If untreated, diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness – regular eye checks are therefore essential to detect, treat and prevent loss of vision. Blood vessel changes or bleeds are treated with laser or intravitreal injection.
The Blue Mountains Eye Study, a large cohort study of eye diseases causing visual impairment in Australia, found that one third of people with diabetes had diabetic retinopathy.
Both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetics are at risk of developing eye problems, especially those who have had diabetes for many years or have difficulty controlling blood sugar levels. All women with diabetes who are pregnant or intending to become pregnant are also recommended to have eye checks each trimester to check for retinopathy.
Often there are no warning signs for diabetic retinopathy. Extreme fluctuations in blood sugar levels causing a bleed can present as rapid vision loss. Other symptoms can include spots in the vision, blurry, distorted or patchy vision that is not corrected with glasses, sensitivity to glare, and difficulty seeing at night.
The best way to address diabetic retinopathy is regular monitoring and optimal glycaemic control. Yearly eye checks are essential to pick up early changes and avoid vision loss through early detection and treatment. Good management of blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels all reduce the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.
Where diabetic retinopathy has caused blood vessel growth or haemorrhage, the main treatments are laser and intravitreal injection. These aim to clear the blood from the eye, stop growth of new blood vessels and improve vision.
With close monitoring of blood glucose levels, blood pressure and lipids, as well as regular annual eye checks, the likelihood of preventing or treating any early changes is good and vastly improves the prognosis of diabetic retinopathy.