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Department of Ophthalmology

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in Americans between the ages of 20-65. It is estimated that 14 million Americans have diabetes, but only one half of these are aware of it.

Diabetes is not just a sugar problem. Diabetes damages the blood vessels in the body. Damaged blood vessels become weak and start to leak. This happens all over the body, and the eyes are especially vulnerable. Everyone with diabetes should have a dilated eye exam at least once a year. People diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy should see their eye doctor at least every six months.

The retina is thin layer at the back of the eye. It can be thought of as the film in a camera. It captures a picture of your world and transports it to your brain for processing. The retina is one of the most complex tissues in your body and is very sensitive to change.

Diabetes causes the blood vessels in the retina to weaken causing fluid leakage and bleeding. The leakage then causes swelling or permanent deposits in the retina. This is referred to as "Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy" - NPDR. Many people with NPDR have no symptoms and are often unaware that they have any eye problems.

Damage from NPDR can deprive the retina of essential nutrients and oxygen. If the retina is starved long enough, it will attempt to grow new blood vessels (neovascularization). This is "Proliferative diabetic retinopathy" - PDR. The new blood vessels are very fragile and tend to grow out of control. This stage of diabetic retinopathy carries a high risk of visual impairment and ultimately blindness.

Anyone with diabetes is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy and other diabetes related eye problems. The longer some one has diabetes the greater the risk of diabetic retinopathy.

Risk factors for diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Duration of Diabetes
  • Poor blood sugar control
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking

Diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed with a dilated eye exam by an eye doctor.


The best treatment for diabetic retinopathy is prevention. Strict glycemic control is necessary to reduce the risk of retinopathy progression.

Laser treatments are often used to stop vessel leakage or reduce the oxygen requirement of the retina. More advanced disease processes require invasive surgeries.