Although everyone’s familiar with diabetes, most people are unaware of a serious diabetic complication called diabetic retinopathy. That’s unfortunate because diabetic retinopathy is actually the leading cause of preventable blindness.1 Learn what you can do to prevent this disease by finding out how it develops, who it affects, and what its stages of progression are.

What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a disease affecting the eyes that’s caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina. It occurs when blood vessels in the eyes begin to swell or leak. In some cases, new blood vessels may grow on the surface of the retina. Over time, the condition worsens, potentially causing vision loss. 2

What Causes Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by too much sugar in the bloodstream. This sugar causes blockage in the blood vessels that nourish the eye, cutting off its blood supply. To compensate, the eye begins to develop new blood vessels. However, these vessels don’t form properly, causing them to leak.3

Who Gets Diabetic Retinopathy?

Anyone with diabetes—type 1 or type 2—is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. That risk is increased if they’ve had diabetes for a long time. Other factors that can increase the likelihood of diabetic retinopathy include4:

  • Poor blood sugar control over time
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Pregnancy

What Are the Stages of Diabetic Retinopathy?

There are four stages of diabetic retinopathy5:

  • Mild Nonproliferative Retinopathy – This is the earliest stage of diabetic retinopathy, and it’s characterized by balloon-like swelling in the retina’s blood vessels. These are called microaneurysms, and these vessels can leak into the eye.
  • Moderate Nonproliferative Retinopathy – During this stage, the blood vessels nourishing the retina swell and may even become blocked. This can contribute to diabetic macular edema (DME) which is a build-up of fluid in the macula region of the retina.

Because the macula is critical for sharp, clear vision, DME can cause vision changes. In fact, DME is the most common reason people with diabetic retinopathy experience vision loss. Although DME can occur at any stage of diabetic retinopathy, it becomes increasingly likely as diabetic retinopathy worsens.

  • Severe Nonproliferative Retinopathy – At this stage, an increasing number of blood vessels nourishing the eye have become blocked. As a result, the retina is signaled to grow new blood vessels.
  • Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (PDR) – This is the final stage of diabetic retinopathy. New blood vessels proliferate, growing inside the retina and into the vitreous gel, which is the fluid that fills the eye. Because these blood vessels are delicate, they may begin to leak and bleed. As a result, scar tissue may form, causing retinal detachment, the pulling away of the retina from underlying tissue. Retinal detachment may cause spotty vision, flashes of lights, or severe vision loss. 6

How Can I Prevent Diabetic Retinopathy?

The good news is that there are steps you can take to lower your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Those steps begin with proper diabetes management and healthy lifestyle changes like: 7]

  • Controlling Your Numbers. Do your best to maintain good blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels.
  • Monitoring Your Vision. Don’t wait until you’re experiencing vision problems before getting an eye exam. Instead, approach eye care proactively by getting a comprehensive dilated eye exam and/or retinal photographs annually. If you’re pregnant, have this exam done early on in your pregnancy to reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.
  • Protecting Your Health. As with most other diseases, your lifestyle can either minimize your risk or worsen it. For that reason, you should follow typical health guidelines by exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and opting for a healthy diet.

By making changes like these, you can go a long way toward minimizing your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. And if you’re already experiencing diabetic retinopathy, these steps can prevent it from worsening. In fact, they may even bring some of your vision back.8

That’s why taking great care of yourself and getting regular comprehensive eye exams are your two greatest weapons against diabetic retinopathy.

Topcon Healthcare Solutions diabetic retinopathy screening program, Topcon Screen, allows primary care physicians, endocrinologists, and internal medicine doctors to provide a reliable eye screening service for their diabetic patients. By offering the comprehensive eye screening service right where the diabetic patients are, with the family doctor, the screening compliance percentages are expected to improve.