With some diabetics, changes can occur to the blood vessels which line the surface of the retina. This condition can lead to the loss of central vision. Research has developed treatments using lasers to bring the situation under control in most cases. Researchers are investigating new ways of arresting this disease.
Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes. It occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the cells at the back of the eye, known as the retina. If it is not treated, it can lead to blindness.
Therefore, it is important for people with diabetes to keep their blood sugar levels under control. Everyone with diabetes who is 12 years old or over should have their eyes examined once a year for signs of damage (see below).
How diabetes can damage the retina
The retina is the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye. It converts light into electrical signals.
The signals are sent to the brain through the optic nerve and the brain interprets them to produce the images that you see.
To work effectively, the retina needs a constant supply of blood, which it receives through a network of tiny blood vessels.
Over time, a continuously high blood sugar level can cause the blood vessels to become blocked or to leak. This damages the retina and stops it from working.
Read more about the causes of diabetic retinopathy.
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy
During the initial stages, retinopathy does not cause any noticeable symptoms. You may not realise that your retina is damaged until the later stages, when your vision becomes affected.
Possible symptoms of late-stage retinopathy include:
- shapes floating in your field of vision (floaters)
- blurred vision
- reduced night vision
- sudden blindness
If you have diabetes and start to notice problems with your vision, contact your GP or diabetes care team immediately.
Read more about the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy.
Screening for diabetic retinopathy
As retinopathy can cause blindness, it is very important that it is identified and treated as early as possible.
The NHS Diabetic Eye Screening Programme aims to reduce the risk of vision loss in people with diabetes. This is done by identifying retinopathy at an early stage and, if necessary, ensuring that appropriate treatment is given.
Everyone with diabetes who is 12 years of age or over is invited for screening once a year.
Read more about how diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed.
Treating diabetic retinopathy
Treatment for retinopathy will depend on the stage the condition has reached.
For example, if retinopathy is identified in its early stages, it may be possible to treat it by controlling your diabetes more effectively.
If you have more advanced retinopathy, you may need to have laser surgery to prevent further damage to your eyes.
Read more about treating diabetic retinopathy.
Preventing diabetic retinopathy
To reduce your risk of developing retinopathy, it is important to control your blood sugar level and keep your blood pressure as close to normal as possible.
Read more about preventing diabetic retinopathy.
Other steps that you can take to help prevent retinopathy include:
- attending your annual screening appointment
- informing your GP if you notice any changes to your vision (do not wait until your next screening appointment)
- taking your medication as prescribed
- losing weight (if you're overweight) and eating a healthy, balanced diet
- exercising regularly
- giving up smoking (if you smoke)
The information on this page is reproduced by kind permission of NHS Choices.