Diabeties and Diabetic Retinopathy

What is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Patients with diabetes are more likely to develop eye problems such as cataracts and glaucoma, but the disease’s affect on the retina is the main threat to vision. Most patients develop diabetic changes in the retina after approximately 15 years of the disease. The effect of diabetes on the retina is called diabetic retinopathy.

In this condition the small blood vessels in the retina become weakened and leak, forming small hemorrhages. The leaking of the vessels often leads to swelling in the retina and decreased vision. If untreated circulation problems can occur in these vessels and the retina becomes deprived of oxygen. This leads to death of the cells in the retina and a permanent loss of vision.

If you are diabetic the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends yearly eye examinations so that related eye problems can be detected and treated as early as possible. At our practice we perform detailed dilated fundus examinations on all diabetics. If any signs of diabetic changes are seen we refer to a retina specialist to manage the condition.

There are two main types of this condition: background (sometimes called minimal) retinopathy and proliferative retinopathy. The risk of developing retinopathy increases with the length of time you have had diabetes. The risk is also increased by poor control of blood sugar levels.

Background Retinopathy

This condition rarely causes any vision to be lost and therefore does not require treatment. Occasionally a swelling of the retina may cause hazy vision or straight lines to appear bent. Your optometrist may instruct you in a simple procedure to carry out at home so that you can test your eyes for this condition. If vision is affected in this way your optometrist can confirm its cause and will refer you for appropriate treatment.

Proliferative Retinopathy

This condition is more serious and requires early treatment to prevent serious vision loss. Your optometrist can recognise signs that this condition might develop, or detect it in its early stages. Once proliferative retinopathy has been diagnosed, your optometrist will refer you to an eye surgeon for further appraisal and probable laser treatment. Treatment of this condition has a better chance of success if it is applied very early.

Managing Diabetic Retinopathy

There is little known about prevention of any of these complications, so the best management is to have regular eye examinations so that changes can be detected and treated early. It is advisable for all people with diabetes to have yearly eye examinations. People who have been diagnosed as having retinopathy should have eye examinations more frequently than once a year.

Diabetes and other vision conditions:

Double vision

This is a distressing but rare complication of diabetes. The condition is usually temporary but it may last for a few months. An optometrist can help treat it while it has effect. Diabetes is not the only cause of double vision.


The eye disease Glaucoma is slightly more common in diabetic people than in the general community. Glaucoma is a condition in which the nerve cells which transmit information from the eye to the brain become damaged, often caused by pressure due to a build-up of fluid in the eye. If untreated, Glaucoma can cause blindness.


Cataracts are more likely to occur in diabetic people at an earlier age than in non-diabetic people. A cataract is a cloudiness that can form in the lens inside the eye. If present, Glaucoma and cataract will be readily detected at your regular eye examination when your optometrist will advise the best management strategy for the condition.