Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication from diabetes that affects the eyes. It’s caused by damage to the blood vessels of the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye. If left untreated, it can cause blindness.

Commonly asked questions

What is diabetes?

To function properly our body needs to convert glucose (sugar) from food into energy using insulin. Diabetes is a condition in which too little or no insulin is produced by the body, which leads to high blood glucose levels.

How does diabetes affect your eyes?

Diabetes affects many parts of the eye. Early in the disease, there are often no signs or symptoms. Symptoms of diabetes may be blurred, fluctuating or double vision. Diabetes may also contribute to the development of cataracts and glaucoma. The most serious complication of diabetes is diabetic retinopathy.

What causes diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar damages the fine blood vessels of the retina, the light-sensitive film at the back of the eye. This causes the vessels to leak blood, the retina to swell and new blood vessels to start growing. If left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness.

Who gets diabetic retinopathy?

The risk of developing diabetic retinopathy is greater if diabetes has been present for a long time or blood sugar levels are not well controlled. Other risk factors include smoking, poor diet and elevated blood pressure. To reduce the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, it is important to work with your GP to control your blood sugar levels as tightly as possible.

How does an optometrist diagnose diabetic retinopathy?

As part of your eye examination it is common for your optometrist to put eye drops in your eyes when checking for diabetic retinopathy. They may need to take a photograph of your retina for comparison at your next eye examination.

If you are diabetic, your optometrist may need to see you more often than once every two years. They will usually refer patients whom they suspect have diabetic retinopathy to an ophthalmologist (eye surgeon) for confirmation and treatment.

How is diabetic retinopathy treated?

In its early stages, diabetic retinopathy is monitored with regular eye examinations. If more severe diabetic retinopathy is suspected, your optometrist will refer you to an ophthalmologist for treatment. If needed, the ophthalmologist may use laser to treat the leaking blood vessels and in some cases, eye surgery may be required.

Treatment aims to prevent further damage to the eye and keep the best vision for as long as possible. Usually surgery cannot restore vision that has been lost. It is important to remember that early detection is the best way to reduce the risk of vision loss from diabetic retinopathy.