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When it comes to the leading cause of blindness in American adults, diabetic retinopathy is to blame. This diabetes-related eye disease causes semi or complete loss of vision by changing the blood vessels in the retina. Diabetic retinopathy has four different stages. There are different symptoms depending on which stage it is in.

The four stages of diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Mild Nonproliferative Retinopathy

    • This beginning stage is often where swelling begins in the retina’s blood vessels. Because they are so tiny, leaking may begin to occur.
  • Moderate Nonproliferative Retinopathy

    • This stage is where the blood vessels which are essential for nourishing the retina become blocked. Swelling and leaking are still occurring in the blood vessels.

  • Severe Nonproliferative Retinopathy

    • In this advanced stage, the blood vessels are blocked which means the retina is no longer getting the blood supply it needs to work correctly. This is the last stage before diabetic retinopathy becomes proliferative as a result of the body sending signals to grow more blood vessels.
  • Proliferative Retinopathy

    • This is the final advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy. Signals have been sent to grow new blood vessels which are grown in an abnormal state. Because of where they are grown along the retina and their fragile state, leaking of blood causes severe vision loss or sometimes even blindness.

If diabetic retinopathy is discovered early, there is a treatment for it. This is why annual eye exams, especially for those with diabetes, is crucial to maintaining eye health. There are also treatments available for those who have lost partial vision from advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy.


If you have diabetes, you know that regularly checking your blood sugar is essential to remaining healthy. You may even be aware of the other parts of the body that diabetes affect like the kidneys, heart, and nerves. But did you know that diabetes is the number one cause for vision loss in adults aged 20-74? Diabetes if left unchecked can lead to glaucoma, cataracts or the most common diagnosis, diabetic retinopathy.

So what is diabetic retinopathy?

This diabetic eye disease affects blood vessels in the retina. Over time, high blood sugar leads to fluid leaks and hemorrhaging of the blood vessels. This causes a distortion or loss in vision. Permanent damage is created in the advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy when the surface of the retina is proliferated by blood vessels causing scarring and cell loss.

How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?

The simple answer is an eye exam from your optometrist. A regular diabetic eye exam will allow an optometrist to test for pupil dilation, pressure of the eye, visual acuity and sometimes more advanced testing like optical coherence tomography. When the optometrist does the exam, signs that are looked for include changes to blood vessel, changes to the lens, damage to nerve tissue, leaking blood vessels and macula swelling. Abnormalities in any of these test can be flags that you may have diabetic retinopathy. The only way to prevent diabetic retinopathy is to monitor your blood sugar and have regular eye exams. If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or diabetic retinopathy, you may require eye exams more frequently than once per year. According to studies, regular exams and treatment can help prevent up to 90% of diabetes-related blindness.

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