Every person living with diabetes is at risk of severe vision loss or blindness. In fact, roughly half will face diabetic retinopathy, the most common vision-related complication of diabetes.

“Once vision is lost to diabetic retinopathy, the damage is often irreversible. But if caught early, there are several good treatments available,” retinal specialist Justin Kanoff, MD, of Eye Care Center of Northern Colorado said during a free health lecture held on May 2 at the Boulder Jewish Community Center.

Diabetic retinopathy results from persistently high blood sugar levels that weaken blood vessels within the retina. This causes the blood vessels to leak fluid or bleed, distorting vision.

“Some of these changes in the eye have no symptoms at all, so it is really critical for patients with diabetes to have a yearly eye exam. Early detection and treatment can reduce a person’s risk for severe vision loss by 95 percent,” Dr. Kanoff said.

Unfortunately, only half of those with diabetes see an eye specialist for an annual retinal exam.

Symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy often has no early warning signs. As the condition progresses, symptoms can include:

  • Blurred or distorted vision
  • Seeing flashes or floaters (spots or dark strings floating in your vision)
  • Impaired color or night vision

Fluctuating vision can indicate changes in blood sugar levels that could require better blood sugar control or indicate macular edema, which is the accumulation of fluid in the center of the retina.

How to Protect Your Vision

Dr. Kanoff said people with diabetes can prevent or delay vision loss from diabetic retinopathy by following these steps:

  • Control your blood sugar. Taking medications as prescribed, staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight are key to lowering your risk and slowing the progression of vision complications.
  • Undergo dilated eye exams annually. During an exam, your doctor can check for changes to blood vessels within the retina or warning signs of leaky blood vessels.
  • Lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. People with diabetes who also have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels are at greater risk for diabetic retinopathy.
  • Stop smoking. Some studies suggest that smoking speeds up the progression of the condition.

Treatments for Halting Vision Loss

If your diabetic retinopathy is mild or moderate, controlling your blood sugar can often slow its progression. Regular monitoring by a physician may be all that is needed. However, if the disease advances, the following treatments can help control its progression:

  • Injections. Eye injections of anti-growth factor drugs (anti-VEGF) can help reduce fluid buildup or widespread blood-vessel growth, which often occurs in the more advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy. Steroid medication can also be injected into the eye to reduce swelling.
  • Laser treatment. With this procedure, a laser beam of light targets leaking blood vessels and seals them off to stop fluid or blood leakage. Laser treatment can also shrink blood vessels that are growing abnormally.
  • Surgery. People with advanced cases of diabetic retinopathy might need surgery to remove fluid buildup or to repair a detached retina resulting from the condition.

Dr. Kanoff said, “Although these treatment options don’t cure diabetic retinopathy, they can be effective in preventing further vision loss.”

Click here to view PowerPoint slides from Dr. Kanoff's lecture on "Preventing & Treating Diabetes-Related Blindness."

If you wish to be screened or treated for diabetic retinopathy, schedule an appointment with Justin Kanoff, MD, by calling (303) 772-3300.

Want to receive notification of special events and lectures? Sign up to receive email notifications.