Diabetic retinopathy affects blood vessels in the light-sensitive tissue called the retina that lines the back of the eye.

It is the most common cause of vision loss among people with diabetes and the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness among working-age adults. Around 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes have some stage of diabetic retinopathy, although 50 percent of these are unaware they have the disease.

Diabetic retinopathy can cause blood vessels in the retina to leak fluid or bleed, decreasing vision. In more advanced stages, new abnormal blood vessels increase in number on the surface of the retina, which can lead to scarring and bleeding in the retina. Diabetic macular edema (DME) is a swelling in the macula and occurs as a consequence of diabetic retinopathy. DME is the most common cause of vision loss among people with diabetic retinopathy.

Vision lost to diabetic retinopathy is sometimes irreversible. However, early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent. Because diabetic retinopathy often lacks early symptoms, people with diabetes should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. People with diabetic retinopathy may need eye exams more frequently.


The early stages of diabetic retinopathy usually have no symptoms. The disease often progresses unnoticed until it affects vision. Listed below are some of the symptoms that occur as the disease progresses:

  • Bleeding from abnormal retinal blood vessels causes the appearance of “floating” spots. These spots sometimes go away without treatment.
  • Without prompt treatment, bleeding often recurs, increasing the risk of permanent vision loss.
  • If diabetic macular edema (DME) occurs vision can begin to blur.


Diabetic retinopathy and DME are detected during a comprehensive dilated eye exam that allows the doctor to examine the retinal for the following:

  • Changes to blood vessels
  • Leaking blood vessels or warning signs of leaky blood vessels, such as fatty deposits
  • Swelling of the macula (DME)
  • Changes in the lens
  • Damage to nerve tissue

Treatment Options

There are a variety of treatments for diabetic retinopathy and DME, but the best option for people at risk is prevention. Studies have shown that controlling diabetes by keeping blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible slows the onset and worsening of diabetic retinopathy. If you have diabetic retinopathy that requires treatment, we’ll review the best options for your eyes with you.