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What is diabetic retinopathy?

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Diabetes is the number one cause of blindness in adults in the UK. If you suffer from this condition, you might be at risk of developing a serious complication with your eyes known as diabetic retinopathy.

Your blood vessels play an essential part in helping you see, as they connect directly to your retina. Increased blood pressure and high sugar levels, normally associated with diabetes, can damage the blood vessels and cause blockages, potentially leading to vision difficulties and in more serious cases, sight loss.

Stages of diabetic retinopathy

This condition develops in stages over time and we’ve described them below. It’s worth noting that you won’t necessarily experience all of these.

1. Background retinopathy

In the earliest stage of diabetic retinopathy, blood vessels are weakened and leak tiny amounts of blood. It is unlikely that your vision will be affected during this stage. However, regular eye tests are essential to diagnose the condition so that treatment can begin as early as possible.

2. Pre-proliferative retinopathy

During the second stage, bleeding from the vessels is likely to have become more severe, and the amount of oxygen in the eye may be reduced. While this has the potential to affect your vision, it’s not always noticeable. It’s recommended that you have your eyes screened regularly to check for changes or abnormalities.

3. Proliferative retinopathy

As the amount of oxygen in the eye is reduced, new blood vessels form on the retina while older vessels scar. The scar tissue and new blood vessels can put you at a greater risk of sight loss - permanent vision damage is probable from this stage of diabetic retinopathy.

How can the risk be minimised?

Diabetic eye screenings are essential for diagnosing retinopathy as early as possible, and anyone with diabetes over the age of 12 should attend them annually.

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Whilst it can’t be prevented per se, controlling your blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol can help to reduce the likelihood of developing this condition. You can also try the below:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet
  • Seek advice and support to stop smoking
  • Attend your annual diabetic eye screening
  • Notify your GP or Optician as soon as you notice any changes in your vision
  • Take all your diabetes medication as prescribed

Symptoms         

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It’s likely that in the very early stages of diabetic retinopathy, you might not be aware of any symptoms. As the condition progresses, you may notice some of the below:

  • Blurred vision
  • Spots or floaters
  • Dark or empty areas in your vision

Treatment

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During background and pre-proliferative stages, treatment may not be required. However, taking steps to prevent it from developing is strongly recommended.

As the condition progresses, it may be treated in one of three ways:

  • Laser surgery may be used to treat proliferative retinopathy. The purpose of this is to prevent new blood cells growing on the retina, preventing further vision loss.
  • Intravitreal injections into the eye may be used if you also have diabetic maculopathy.
  • Vitreoretinal surgery may be required if the condition has become too advanced for laser surgery to be used.

Making a few lifestyle changes can improve your general health and reduce your risk of developing retinopathy. Early detection increases the chances of treatment being effective and prevent it from progressing.