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Diabetic Retinopathy

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a condition caused by nerve damage from long-term high blood sugar levels. It is a complication of diabetes that is not controlled. The walls of the blood vessels in the retina weaken and leak blood. This causes swelling and vision problems. Over time, new, weak blood vessels grow, leak blood, and cover the center of the retina. This can cause blindness.

Lateral cut-away of the Right Eye

What increases my risk of diabetic retinopathy?

DR can develop in anyone who has diabetes. You are more likely to have DR if you have had diabetes for a long time. The following may increase your chances of having DR or of DR becoming worse:

  • You do not control your blood sugar.

  • You were diagnosed with diabetes during puberty.

  • You have other eye problems or have had eye surgery.

  • You have other family members with DR.

  • You have high blood pressure.

  • You have high blood cholesterol.

  • You are pregnant.

  • You have other health problems, such as anemia or kidney problems.

What are the signs and symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

  • Blurred vision

  • Seeing red or black wavy lines that look like a curtain or spider web

  • Seeing light flashes or red, black, or grey floating spots (floaters)

  • Vision loss

How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?

Diabetic retinopathy may be diagnosed during an eye exam. You may also have the following:

  • Dilated indirect ophthalmoscopy: This test uses a magnifying lens to see your retina and other parts of your eye. Eyedrops are placed into your eyes to make your pupils larger.

  • Stereo fundus photography: Pictures of your eye are taken to show healthcare providers your DR.

  • Fluorescein angiography: This test uses a dye that is injected into a vein in your hand or arm. The dye flows into the blood vessels of your retina and then a picture of your eye is taken.

How is diabetic retinopathy treated?

You may not need treatment if you have mild DR. Healthcare providers will check your eyes regularly to monitor the damage to your retinas. If you have severe DR, you may need surgery to slow or stop the disease. Laser treatment may slow DR and prevent blindness. This treatment shrinks the new blood vessels and seals the areas that have leaks. Surgery called a vitrectomy may be done if there is bleeding in the vitreous that does not clear. The vitreous is the gel-like material that fills the inside of the eye.

What can I do to prevent diabetic retinopathy?

  • Control your blood sugar: Keep your blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. You may need to check your blood sugar levels 3 times each day.

  • Get annual eye exams: Your eye doctor may want to see you more often. Have your eyes checked before you get pregnant. Get your eyes checked during the first 13 weeks of your pregnancy and after you give birth.

  • Manage your blood pressure: Your blood pressure should be 130/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) or lower. You may need to make lifestyle changes and take medicines to control your blood pressure.

  • Manage your cholesterol: You need lab tests that measure the amount of cholesterol in your blood. You may need to make lifestyle changes or take medicines to control your cholesterol.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your blurred vision gets worse, or you start to see double.

  • You see more floating spots.

  • You see dark spots.

  • Your blood sugar level is higher or lower than healthcare providers have told you it should be.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek immediate help or have someone call 911 if:

  • You suddenly cannot see.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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