Deciphering Diabetic Retinopathy

Since 2004 it has been a requirement that UK patients with diabetes be screened annually for diabetic retinopathy—we take a look at this prevalent condition.

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes. It is one of the main forms of diabetic eye disease, the others being diabetic macular edema (DME), cataract and glaucoma. All forms of diabetic eye disease have the ability to cause severe vision loss and blindness. With diabetic retinopathy, high blood sugar levels cause damage to the eye by blocking the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina—cutting off its blood supply. The retina is the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical signals. These signals are directed to the brain, which converts them into the images that we see.

Symptoms and detection

Like many conditions of this nature, diabetic retinopathy may go unnoticed at first. As the disease progresses, individuals may experience:

  • Dark spots or strings in their vision
  • Blurred vision
  • Impaired colour vision
  • Fluctuating vision
  • Vision loss


Even if your vision seems fine, diabetes sufferers should schedule a comprehensive dilated eye exam once a year. Pregnancy can worsen diabetic retinopathy; your doctor may, therefore, recommend more frequent consultations with you. This is also the case for those already diagnosed with a form of diabetic retinopathy.

Treatment options

The severity of the condition tends to dictate the course of treatment. Background retinopathy involves no treatment but requires regular checkups. Laser photocoagulation is one form of treatment for severe cases; it involves administering tiny laser burns in the area of the retina leakage—this can stop the condition from worsening. Otherwise, preventative measures are deemed the best way to tackle diabetic retinopathy.

Am I at risk?

Anybody with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes is at some risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Other factors that increase your risk include:

  • Having had diabetes for a long time
  • Having persistently high blood pressure
  • Being pregnant
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Being of African or Afro-Caribbean descent
  • Tobacco use
  • Poor control of blood sugar levels


The prevalence of diabetic retinopathy in people with Type 1 diabetes in 2014; with Type 2 diabetes it occurred in 30% of people

Source: Diabetic eye disease: A UK Incidence and Prevalence Study, Rohini Mathur et al. 2017

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