Diabetic Retinopathy: Know the Signs, Symptoms and Treatments

A disease that steals a person’s eyesight is one of the many potential complications of diabetes. Learn why eye care is crucial.

7:00 AM

Author | Kevin Joy

Left unchecked, diabetes can affect almost every part of the body — from skin and bone to the heart, liver and nerves.

A common and vulnerable target: the eyes.

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

About 30 to 40 percent of patients with diabetes in the United States experience diabetic retinopathy, which occurs when high blood sugar damages the tiny blood vessels of the retina.

The severity is tied to the duration and management of a patient's diabetes. Over time, advanced cases can lead to poor vision or even blindness.

That's why preventive self-care and regular eye exams are important, says Thomas Gardner, M.D., a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center.

"Like most other diseases, success lies in early diagnosis and treatment," says Gardner. "The prognosis for retaining good vision for people who keep their diabetes well controlled is much, much better than it used to be."

Why diabetic retinopathy is dangerous

Many people aren't aware they have diabetic retinopathy until it has moved from early stages (nonproliferative retinopathy) to a point when leaking blood vessels break open and cause scar tissue that can pull on the retina (proliferative retinopathy). A delayed or lack of treatment "can make it very difficult to maintain vision," Gardner says.

Diabetic retinopathy symptoms

The condition is often asymptomatic, especially in early cases. But as it progresses, effects are pronounced — including a lessened (or lost) ability to read or drive. Gardner says patients also may start "seeing blood floating around in their eyes" in the form of tiny black or red dots.

SEE ALSO: 5 Questions with a Diabetes Physician Who Has Type 1

How diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed

Patients should notify a doctor if symptoms arise, but dilation during a routine eye exam can offer clues: "Most commonly, we see small hemorrhages in the back of their eye," Gardner says. "We also can see if there is swelling of the retina or growth of abnormal blood vessels."

Who is at risk of diabetic retinopathy

People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes generally have the same likelihood of developing diabetic retinopathy. Blacks and Hispanics have a higher overall risk. Secondary factors, Gardner says, also heighten the chances: "foot infections, anemia or coexisting kidney disease."

How diabetic retinopathy is treated

Steroids and medications known as anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) can help. "Steroids reduce inflammation, and the anti-VEGF drugs inhibit the action of a specific molecule inside the eye that promotes leaking blood vessels — and the formation of abnormal new ones," Gardner says. Some patients may be advised to receive laser eye treatment.

Ways to prevent diabetic retinopathy

Habits that patients with diabetes use to maintain their health also keep diabetic retinopathy at bay: exercise, smoking and alcohol cessation, and a balanced diet, among other things. "The earlier you set a good foundation, the more likely you are to do well," Gardner says.

More Articles About: Eye Health Diabetes Management Diabetes Support Kellogg Eye Center Eye Care & Vision Diabetes
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories
Health Lab
How to protect your eyes during the total solar eclipse
A Michigan Medicine ophthalmologist and retinal surgeon shares advice for viewing the total solar eclipse safely, including what to look for in eye protection.
Headshot of Shahzad Mian, M.D.
News Release
Michigan Medicine names new chair of Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences
Shahzad I. Mian, M.D., has been appointed chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and the F. Bruce Fralick Professor of Ophthalmology in the Medical School and the Director of the W.K. Kellogg Eye Center
Graphic with diabetes management supplies, a clipboard that reads health insurance, a calculator and money
Health Lab
High out-of-pocket costs hindering treatment of diabetes
According to a Michigan Medicine study, people with diabetes, particularly those with type 1 diabetes, endure substantial out-of-pocket expenses compared to people without diabetes.
A dentist operates on a patient at Exalta Health in Grand Rapids
Health Lab
Using telehealth to serve disparate populations
A collaboration between Exalta Health and University of Michigan Health-West is a creative method of bridging language, financial, and technology gaps between patients and health care providers.
Scott Soleimanpour, M.D., sits in front of a computer screen picturing beta cells
Health Lab
Unraveling the secrets behind beta cells
One diabetes program is moving to revolutionize investigations and treatment in the field
Health Lab Podcast in brackets with a background with a dark blue translucent layers over cells
Health Lab Podcast
Study finds bipolar disorder surpasses smoking in mortality risk
A large study shows having bipolar disorder is associated with a four- to six-fold risk of dying prematurely, suggesting more preventive efforts needed. Visit Health Lab to read the full story.