blurry vision

Diabetic Retinopathy: A Leading Cause of Blindness

Following closely behind glaucoma and macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States.

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye condition and is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina. It’s important to recognize the signs and stages of the disease so you can treat it before your vision worsens.

Diabetic Retinopathy Stages

Alexander Anetakis, MD, a retina specialist at the UPMC Eye Center, discusses the two common types or stages of diabetic retinopathy:

  • Nonproliferative retinopathy
  • Proliferative retinopathy

Nonproliferative Retinopathy

In the earliest stage of the disease, blood vessels in the retina may become swollen and leak fluid and small amounts of blood into the eye. As the diabetic retinopathy progresses, blood vessels begin to block the blood supply to the retina. Often there are no symptoms of diabetic retinopathy or the symptoms are minor.

Proliferative Retinopathy

In the most advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy, signals are sent to the body to grow more blood vessels in an attempt to restore the blood supply. These new blood vessels are fragile and abnormal. The walls of these new blood vessels are thin and fragile and as a result do not supply the retina with proper blood flow. These thin blood cells may begin to leak blood, which results in severe vision loss and blindness.

Macular Edema

At any stage of the disease, macular edema can occur. When this happens, fluid leaks into the macula, the small area at the center of your retina. The macula is the section of your retina that is responsible for sharp vision. With the addition of fluid, the macula becomes swollen and ultimately blurs vision.

Diabetic Retinopathy Symptoms

Like most conditions of the eye, significant vision changes and blindness don’t typically occur until the more advanced stages. When symptoms of diabetic retinopathy do begin to appear, the first symptom is usually blurred vision, but sometimes spots of blood may also be visible. Your sight may temporarily improve if the spots disappear; however it is common for them to recur. Once the disease has progressed to the later stages and bleeding is occurring, you will begin to see spots of blood in your visual field. Additionally, if and when, macular edema occurs your vision will become blurry.

Diabetic Retinopathy Risk Factors

Diabetic retinopathy is a diabetic eye condition that commonly affects individuals with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Likelihood of developing the disease increases the longer you have diabetes. It is estimated by the National Eye Institute that approximately 45 percent of individuals with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy. In addition to diabetes, individuals who are Hispanic or African American have an increased risk of developing the condition. Other risk factors for diabetic retinopathy include:

For more information on diabetic retinopathy, or to schedule an eye exam, please call the UPMC Eye Center at 412-647-2200.