Education: Diabetic Retinopathy

Early detection of diabetic retinopathy is the best protection against loss of vision. People with diabetes should schedule eye examinations at least once a year.

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Diabetic Retinopathy

What is diabetic retinopathy?
Of the almost 20 million people in the US with diabetes, almost half will eventually develop some sort of diabetic eye disease such as diabetic retinopathy, cataract, or glaucoma. Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of vision impairment for adults with diabetes.

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the eye. In the earliest stage, tiny blood vessels within the retina become damaged and leak blood or fluid. At the most advanced stage, signals sent by the retina for nourishment trigger the growth of new blood vessels. These new blood vessels are abnormal and fragile and if they leak blood, severe vision loss and even blindness can result.

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Who gets diabetic retinopathy and what are the symptoms?
All people with diabetes are at risk, both Type I diabetes (juvenile onset) and Type II diabetes (adult onset). The longer a person has diabetes, the higher the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Around 80% of the people who have had diabetes for at least 15 years have some blood vessel damage to their retina. Pregnancy and high blood pressure are thought to aggravate diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy usually affects both eyes. Diabetic retinopathy is often present without any symptoms. Vision changes may not occur until the disease has progressed severely, resulting in distortion and blurring. Early detection of diabetic retinopathy is the best protection against loss of vision.

What treatment options are recommended for diabetic retinopathy?
If you have diabetes, the good news is that with improved methods of diagnosis and treatments, only a small percentage of people who develop retinopathy have serious vision problems. The best protection against diabetic retinopathy is to have regular medical eye examinations. People with diabetes should schedule eye examinations at least once a year. More frequent medical eye examinations may be necessary once diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed.

In many cases treatment isn’t necessary. In other cases, treatment is recommended to stop the damage of diabetic retinopathy and improve sight. By controlling blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol, the progression of nonproliferative retinopathy can oftentimes be halted. However, if diabetic retinopathy has advanced to the proliferative stage, surgical treatment is usually required.

Laser surgery is often helpful in treating diabetic retinopathy and can greatly reduce the chance of severe visual impairment. When the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the retina has caused bleeding, a vitrectomy may be required. This procedure removes blood clouding the vitreous gel at the center of the eye. This is typically done as an outpatient procedure.

Click here to learn more about diabetic eye care, including your surgical options. We encourage you to work in partnership with your doctor, take good care of your overall health, and to remember that vision loss is largely preventable.