Diabetic retinopathy is damage to the retina, the light sensitive area at the back of the eye. The damage is caused by changes in the blood vessels that supply the cells of the retina with oxygen and nutrition. In the first stage of retinopathy, called background or nonproliferative retinopathy, the blood vessels develop small balloon-like swellings called microaneurysms and leak fluid and blood, or become clogged. When these changes happen to enough of the blood vessels, the cells of the retina are deprived of their blood supply. In response to the lack of blood, new blood vessels grow. These new blood vessels are abnormal, fragile and leak blood. The result is loss of vision or blindness. This phase is called proliferative retinopathy. Usually, diabetic retinopathy progresses from nonproliferative to proliferative over a period of years. Most often, there are no symptoms of diabetic retinopathy. In some cases mild-to-severe blurring, seeing “strings,” “cobwebs” or specks floating in your visual field, or vision loss may be symptoms. Retinopathy can be treated with photocoagulation, laser treatment that stops blood leakage and shrinks blood vessels.
Your retina can be badly damaged before you notice any change in vision, and most people with nonproliferative retinopathy have no symptoms, the ADA says. Even with proliferative retinopathy, people sometimes have no symptoms until it’s too late to treat the condition. That’s why it’s crucial for people with diabetes to see an eye care professional every year for eye examinations.