According to the American Diabetes Association, over 30 million Americans live with diabetes. Many people successfully manage their blood sugar through a combination of diet, exercise, and medication. But if the condition isn’t treated properly, serious complications are possible. Diabetic retinopathy is an eye problem that may result when blood sugar levels aren’t kept in check. If untreated, you can ultimately become blind. But vision loss isn’t unavoidable. Controlling your blood sugar with the help of your doctor is the best way to prevent this eye complication. And if you already have signs of diabetic retinopathy, your doctor can recommend a treatment to preserve as much of your vision as possible. Diabetic Retinopathy Basics Diabetic retinopathy results from chronic, or long-term, high blood sugar. When blood sugar levels stay elevated, blood vessels inside your eyes can be damaged. These blood vessels are located in the retina, the light-sensitive portion of your eye which allows you to see. Doctors diagnose two types of diabetic retinopathy, which can affect one or both eyes: nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) and proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). Nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy: NPDR is the earliest stage of this disease. If you have NPDR, the blood vessels located in the retina leak blood and fluid into the affected eye. In many cases, the retina swells, and sometimes retinal blood vessels can actually close off. Proliferative diabetic retinopathy: PDR is the advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy. If you have PDR, your retina begins to grow new blood vessels. However, the new vessels are fragile and often leak blood into the eye. In many cases, scar tissue forms, which increases your likelihood of further complications like a detached or torn retina. Diabetic Retinopathy Risk Factors and Symptoms Anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy. The longer you have diabetes, especially if the condition isn’t controlled, the more likely you are to develop this condition. Other common risk factors include: Being African-American, Hispanic, or Native American High blood pressure or high cholesterol Pregnancy Tobacco use The symptoms of diabetic retinopathy depend on the stage of the disease. If you have NPDR, you may have no symptoms, or your symptoms may be mild. It’s common for people with NPDR to experience issues like: Blurred vision Fluctuating vision Strings or spots floating in your vision As the condition worsens, symptoms such as dark areas in your visual field, impaired color vision, and vision loss are possible. Diagnosing Diabetic Eye Disease Your ophthalmologist diagnoses diabetic retinopathy during a dilated eye examination. During this exam, your doctor views the interior of your eyes to find any abnormal blood vessels or scar tissue. In some cases, doctors inject a special dye into a vein in your arm. This dye helps your doctor better visualize your eye’s blood vessels. Another test, called optical coherence tomography, may be required. This test measures the thickness of your retina and helps your doctor determine whether any blood or fluid is leaking into the retinal tissue. Treating Diabetic Retinopathy Fortunately, you have several options for treating diabetic retinopathy. Your doctor may recommend: Medical control: If diabetic retinopathy isn’t advanced, the best way to stop vision loss and prevent further damage to your eyes is to control your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It’s important to follow your doctor’s diabetes treatment plan to help keep your eyes healthy. Medications: In more advanced cases, certain medications can be injected into the eye to help stop the growth of abnormal blood vessels and reduce swelling in the eye. Laser Surgery: Your doctor may recommend laser eye surgery to stop the abnormal proliferation of blood vessels. Vitrectomy: This surgery allows your doctor to remove blood, scar tissue, and other materials from inside your eye. In most cases, this is only performed for advanced PDR. Living with diabetes increases your risk for diabetic eye disease, but it’s possible to prevent or slow the progression of diabetic retinopathy. Working with your doctor to keep blood sugar levels controlled is the best way to promote eye health. If your doctor diagnoses diabetic retinopathy, you have several treatment options which may help stabilize or restore your vision.