Diabetes Week 2017: Diabetic Retinopathy Part 1 – Types, Symptoms and Screening

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication that can affect people who have diabetes. It damages the blood vessels in the back of the eye, called the retina, and is caused by having high blood sugar levels. If left undiagnosed or untreated, retinopathy can lead to blindness, but it usually takes years before it reaches this stage.

Types of Diabetic Retinopathy

There are three different types of diabetic retinopathy to be aware of. These are the stages of diabetic retinopathy, but that doesn’t mean you will necessarily experience all three stages.

  1. Background Retinopathy – This early form of retinopathy will not directly affect your vision but should be checked regularly to observe any changes. As the small blood vessels, called capillaries, in the retina get blocked they can bulge and sometimes bleed slightly. If both your eyes are affected, the chances that you’ll progress to the later stages within 3 years is over 25%.
  2. Pre-proliferative Retinopathy – This affects a greater area of blood vessels and causes a more significant level of bleeding. Often this leads on to the final type of retinopathy called Proliferative Retinopathy. It’s recommended that you monitor your eyes closely, every 3 to 6 months, if you’re diagnosed with pre-proliferative retinopathy.
  3. Proliferative Retinopathy – There is a high risk that at this stage it will result in some loss of vision. This is caused by sensitive scar tissue and new blood vessels prone to bleeding forming on the retina. This can also lead to retinal detachment, where the retina comes away from the back of the eye.

There is one other type, called diabetic maculopathy, which doesn’t necessarily fit into the above 3 stages. This is where the blood vessels in the macula (located in the centre of the retina) become blocked or leak. If this is diagnosed, there’s a high chance that it will affect your vision and so it’s important that the condition is monitored closely. Advice on treatment will be provided to prevent the condition from worsening.

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

To begin with, diabetic retinopathy usually doesn’t show any symptoms in its early stages. It’s recommended that photographs of the eye are taken during regular diabetic eye screenings to monitor the condition.
But, as retinopathy develops, it does begin to affect the vision. Floating spots are typically the first signs of retinopathy, and sometimes these can disappear on their own. The floating spots are the result of bleeding from the affected retinal blood vessels, and this can reoccur at any point, which is why swift treatment is highly recommended to reduce the risk of further complications including loss of vision. But it’s important to remain aware of any other changes to your vision including worsening vision, sudden loss of vision, blurring or patchy vision or any pain/redness in the eye. Within 20 years of diagnosis, almost all people with Type 1 diabetes and 2/3rds of people with Type 2 diabetes have developed some form of diabetic retinopathy.
It may not be the case that any changes to your vision are the result of diabetic retinopathy, as there are other diabetic eye problems, but the sooner you get your eyes checked through a diabetic eye screening, the better.

Diabetic Retinopathy Screening

Diabetic retinopathy screenings, or diabetic eye screenings, are purely procedural and are designed to ensure that your eyes are looked after if you’re diagnosed with diabetes. They’re nothing to worry about, but it’s important that you do attend them.
From the age of 12, if you have diabetes you’ll be invited to these diabetic retinopathy screenings every year. These screenings are designed to detect any signs of retinopathy early on, especially as background retinopathy doesn’t show any symptoms to begin with. As the risks of undiagnosed retinopathy can result in sight loss, the annual screenings help to reduce the chances of this. If caught early on, treatment can help prevent or reduce vision loss. 46% of those with sight loss as a result of diabetic retinopathy are of working age, but if caught earlier on the consequences can be reduced.
The diabetic retinopathy screening involves putting drops in your eyes to make your pupils bigger. The drops may make your eyes sting and you vision might blur after a while. The purpose is to examine and photograph the back of the eye to check for any signs of retinopathy, either in its early stages or later on. The process lasts roughly 30 minutes and your vision can sometimes stay blurry for up to 6 hours afterwards. It’s wise to take someone with you as you won’t be able to drive back from your screening. Also, your eyes may be more sensitive to light after the drops have been put in, so take a pair of sunglasses with you for when you leave.

There are 3.5 million people in the UK who have diabetes, so make sure you’re aware of diabetic retinopathy and what it means for your eyesight. Attending any appointments for diabetic retinopathy screenings, or consulting your optometrist if you experience any changes in your vision, is vitally important to looking after the condition of your eyes.
If you want to learn more about diabetes in general, visit the Diabetes UK website for more helpful information.
For more help on other Diabetic Eye Problems, and how your optometrist can help you, get in touch with us today!

Want to learn about treatment and how to take care of your eyes if you have diabetes?

Check out Part 2 here!