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Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that causes damage to the blood vessels of the retina— the light-sensitive  tissue that lines the back part of the eye, allowing you to see fine detail. 

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of irreversible blindness in working-age Americans. As many people with  type 1 diabetes suffer blindness as those with the more common type 2 disease. Diabetic retinopathy develops in more than  half of the people who develop diabetes. 


It is possible to have diabetic retinopathy for a long time without noticing symptoms until substantial damage has occurred.  Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy may occur in one or both eyes including: 

  • Blurred or distorted vision 
  • Difficulty reading
  • Difficulty with color perception 
  • The appearance of spots— commonly called “floaters”— in your vision
  • A shadow across the field of vision


The primary cause of diabetic retinopathy is diabetes—a condition in which the levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood are too  high. Elevated sugar levels from diabetes can damage the small blood vessels that nourish the retina and may, in some  cases, block them completely. 

When damaged blood vessels leak fluid into the retina it results in a condition known as diabetic macular edema which  causes swelling in the center part of the eye (macula) that provides the sharp vision needed for reading and recognizing  faces.

Prolonged damage to the small blood vessels in the retina results in poor circulation to the retina and macula prompting the  development of growth factors that cause new abnormal blood vessels (neovascularization) and scar tissue to grow on the  surface of the retina. This stage of the disease is known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). 

New vessels may bleed into the middle of the eye, cause scar tissue formation, pull on the retina, cause retinal detachment,  or may cause high pressure and pain if the blood vessels grow on the iris, clogging the drainage system of the eye—all of this  can cause vision loss. 


Anyone who has diabetes is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Additional factors can increase the risk: 

  • Disease duration: the longer someone has diabetes, the greater the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Poor control of blood sugar levels over time 
  • High blood pressure 
  • High cholesterol levels 
  • Pregnancy


If you have diabetes, the National Eye Institute suggests that you keep your health on 

Stay on Track 

  • Take your medicines as prescribed by your doctor 
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight 
  • Add physical activity to your day 
  • Control your ABCs—A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol 
  • Kick the smoking habit 

Regular dilated eye exams reduce the risk of developing more severe complications from the disease.

It is extremely important for diabetic patients to maintain the eye examination schedule put in place by the retina specialist.  How often an examination is needed depends on the severity of your disease. Through early detection, the retina specialist  can begin a treatment regimen to preserve your vision. 

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