Diabetes is a disease which affects the blood vessels throughout the body, particularly vessels in the kidney and eye. When the blood vessels in the eye are affected, this is called diabetic retinopathy.
The retina lies in the back of the eye and is a multi-layered tissue which detects visual images and transmits these to the brain. There are major blood vessels which lie on the surface, or the front portion, of the retina. When these blood vessels are damaged due to diabetes, they may leak fluid or blood and grow scar tissue. This leakage affects the ability of the retina to detect and transmit images.
Diabetic Retinopathy is the leading cause of new blindness among adults in the United States. If untreated, there is a risk of becoming blind. The longer one has diabetes, the higher the incidence of developing diabetic retinopathy. Approximately 80% of people who have diabetes for 15 years have some damage to their retinal vessels. With today's treatment only a small percentage of people have serious vision problems.
There are two types of diabetic retinopathy. Nonproliferative retinopathy is considered the early stage. Reading vision is typically not affected, but it can advance and cause severe vision problems. There are usually no symptoms with diabetic retinopathy. An exam is the only way to diagnose changes in the vessels of your eyes.
When the retinopathy becomes advanced, new vessels grow, or proliferate, in the retina. These new vessels are the body's attempt to overcome and replace the vessels which have been damaged by diabetes. But these new vessels are not normal. They may bleed, which causes vision to become hazy and sometimes causing a total loss of vision. These new vessels can also damage the retina by forming scar tissue and by pulling the retina away from its proper location. This stage, called proliferative retinopathy, requires immediate medical attention. Treatment is necessary to prevent severe loss of vision. Regular eye exams are crucial for all persons with diabetes. The progressing damage to the blood vessels in the eye can be slowed with treatment.