DIABETIC RETINOPATHY IS A COMMON CONDITION IN PEOPLE WITH DIABETES
Diabetes can cause a number of eye problems, but diabetic retinopathy, or DR, is the most common, and it can lead to vision loss or even blindness. In fact, diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of new cases of blindness in working-age U.S. adults. Anyone with any type of diabetes is at risk of developing DR and its complications like diabetic macular edema—and the risk increases the longer you have diabetes.
Diabetic retinopathy happens inside your eyes and may not show symptoms until its later stages—but even though you can’t see it, there is something you can do about it. If you have diabetes, it’s very important to get your eyes checked at least once annually by an eye care professional, even if your vision seems normal.
Being examined by an eye doctor is the only way to determine if you have diabetic retinopathy. It’s also the only way to monitor diabetic retinopathy progression after you’ve been diagnosed. If you need treatment, you need to be referred to a retina specialist.
There’s a possibility that diabetic retinopathy can progress even if you’re managing your blood sugar levels, that’s why it’s important to go to your eye care specialist regularly. By performing some tests, your eye care specialist can find out what’s happening inside your eyes and, if needed, suggest actions that can be taken.
Watch a group of retina specialists discuss diabetic retinopathy and the importance of eye checkups
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Diabetic retinopathy can be broken up into two stages: non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, or NPDR (which can go from mild to moderate to severe), and proliferative diabetic retinopathy, or PDR.
Read on to learn, step by step, what these terms mean and how diabetic retinopathy can progress.
Non-Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (NPDR)
In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, excess sugar levels start affecting the tiny blood vessels in the back of your eye. This part of the eye, called the retina, is what senses light and sends signals that your brain interprets as images.
At first, there might be no changes in your vision at all, but over time, NPDR can progress through mild, moderate, and severe stages. This happens as the blood vessels become increasingly swollen, and leak fluid or bleed, leaving the retina without enough oxygen or nutrients.
At this point, there still may be no changes in your vision—so there might not be warning signs you can notice on your own.
If NPDR is not slowed by treatment, bleeding and other changes can occur, and you may notice symptoms like blurriness around the edges of vision, difficulty reading, or seeing an increase in “floaters” in one or both eyes (it’s important to know that floaters can be signs of eye conditions not related to diabetes).
Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (PDR)
Over time, in response to the changes that NPDR causes, the body produces a substance called vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF. VEGF is thought to promote the growth of new blood vessels in the retina to try to get the blood flow it needs. These new vessels are not normal, though. They are fragile and easily damaged, and this adds to the swelling and leaking.
This advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy is called proliferative diabetic retinopathy because of the “proliferation”—or quick increase—of these new blood vessels. Visual symptoms like blurry vision or seeing dark spots are usually present at this stage.
PDR is very serious—and it often comes with vision loss.
It’s important to know that there are treatment options that may help slow down and even reverse some of the damage that may be happening inside the eyes.