Diabetic Retinopathy

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Diabetic retinopathy occurs when blood vessels in the retina are damaged from elevated blood sugar in diabetes. Vascular damage causes fluid leakage or closure of small blood vessels. In other cases, abnormal blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina.

People who have diabetic retinopathy often don't notice changes in their vision in the disease's early stages. But as it progresses, diabetic retinopathy usually causes vision loss that in many cases cannot be reversed.

There are two types of diabetic retinopathy:

Nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR)
Nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) is the earliest stage of diabetic retinopathy. With this condition, damaged blood vessels in the retina begin to leak extra fluid and small amounts of blood into the eye. Sometimes, deposits of cholesterol or other fats from the blood may leak into the retina.

NPDR can cause:

  • Microaneurysms: small bulges in blood vessels of the retina that often leak fluid.

  • Retinal hemorrhages: tiny spots of blood that leak into the retina.

  • Hard exudates: deposits of cholesterol or other fats from the blood that have leaked into the retina.

  • Macular edema: swelling or thickening of the macula caused by fluid leaking from the retina's blood vessels. The macula doesn't function properly when it is swollen. Macular edema is the most common cause of vision loss in diabetes.

  • Macular ischemia: small blood vessels (capillaries) close. Your vision blurs because the macula no longer receives enough blood to work properly.

Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR)
Proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR) mainly occurs when many of the blood vessels in the retina close, preventing adequate blood flow (retinal ischemia). In an attempt to supply blood to the area where the original vessels closed, the retina responds by growing new blood vessels. This is called neovascularization. However, these new blood vessels are abnormal and do not supply the retina with proper blood flow.

PDR may cause more severe vision loss than NPDR because it can affect both central and peripheral vision.

PDR can cause:

  • Vitreous hemorrhage: delicate new blood vessels bleed into the vitreous — the gel in the center of the eye — preventing light rays from reaching the retina. If the vitreous hemorrhage is small, you may see a few dark floaters. A very large hemorrhage might block out all vision, allowing you to perceive only light and dark. Vitreous hemorrhage alone does not cause permanent vision loss. When the blood clears, your vision may return to its former level unless the macula has been damaged.

  • Traction retinal detachment: scar tissue from neovascularization shrinks, causing the retina to wrinkle and pull from its normal position. Macular wrinkling can distort your vision. More severe vision loss can occur if the macula or large areas of the retina are detached.

  • Neovascular glaucoma: As retinal ischemia progresses from vascular damage, neovascularization can occur in the iris (the colored part of the eye). In this condition, the new blood vessels may block the normal flow of fluid out of the eye. Pressure builds up in the eye, a particularly severe condition that causes damage to the optic nerve.

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