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What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

If you have diabetes it is very important to get checked by your eye doctor. You may not know, but diabetes causes changes in your eyesight and can lead to a condition called Diabetic Retinopathy. It is recommended to visit your eye doctor regularly when you have such diseases, sometimes as often as every one to three months or at least every six to 12 months. The reason being that diabetes can cause swelling in the eye, which eventually can form a cataract. Cataracts can be dangerous, as they lead to blindness and unsafe vision. If you get checked regularly you can prevent this problem from getting worse.

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic Retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease, and occurs when blood vessels in the retina change. Sometimes, the vessels swell and leak fluid. They can even close off completely. In other cases, abnormal new blood vessels can grow on the surface of the retina. The retina is a thin layer of tissue that is light sensitive and lines the back of the eye. Light rays are focused into the retina, where they are transmitted to the brain and interpreted as the images that we see.

Effects of diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy typically has an effect on both eyes, and people diagnosed with the condition usually do not notice changes in their vision in the disease’s early stages. As the condition progresses, it usually causes vision loss that in many cases, cannot be reversed. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness among working-aged adults. Diabetic retinopathy may progress through four stages.

Stages of diabetic retinopathy

  • The first stage is mild nonproliferative retinopathy, which is when small areas of balloon-like swelling in the retina’s tiny blood vessels develop. These are called microaneurysms, occurring at the earliest stage of this disease. Microaneurysms may leak fluid into the retina.
  • The second stage is moderate nonproliferative retinopathy. As the disease begins to progress, blood vessels that nourish the retina begin to swell or distort. Additionally, they may also lose their ability to transport blood, and cause characteristic changes in the appearance of the retina.
  • The third stage is severe nonproliferative retinopathy, where many more blood vessels are blocked, depriving blood supply to the areas of the retina. These areas secrete growth factors that signal the retina to grow new blood vessels.
  • The fourth stage of Diabetic Retinopathy is proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR), the most advanced stage. Growth factors secreted by the retina trigger the proliferation of new blood vessels, which grow along the inside surface of the retina and into the vitreous gel, the fluid that fills the eye. The new blood vessels are fragile, which makes them more likely to leak and bleed. Accompanying scar tissue can contract and cause retinal detachment, which is the pulling away of the retina from the underlying tissue. Retinal detachment can lead to permanent vision loss.

The early stages of Diabetic Retinopathy usually have no symptoms, and the disease can go unnoticed until it affects the individual’s vision. Early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by up to 95 percent. Because this condition lacks early symptoms, people with diabetes should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. This is why visiting your eye doctor after you've been diagnosed with diabetes is so important!