Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes. It occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the cells at the back of the eye, known as the retina. If it is not treated, it can lead to blindness.

With some diabetics, changes can occur to the blood vessels which line the surface of the retina which can lead to the loss of central vision. Therefore, it is important for people with diabetes to keep their blood sugar levels under control. 

Research has developed treatments using lasers to bring the situation under control in most cases. New ways of treating this disease are currently being researched – please help us fund further research to find new treatments.


Causes of diabetic retinopathy

The retina is the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye. It converts light into electrical signals. These signals are sent to the brain through the optic nerve and the brain interprets them to produce the images that you see.

To work effectively, the retina needs a constant supply of blood, which it receives through a network of tiny blood vessels.

Over time, a continuously high blood sugar level can cause the blood vessels to become blocked or to leak. This damages the retina and stops it from working, usually in 3 main stages:

  • background retinopathy – tiny bulges develop in the blood vessels, which may bleed slightly but don't usually affect your vision
  • pre-proliferative retinopathy – more severe and widespread changes affect the blood vessels, including more significant bleeding into the eye
  • proliferative retinopathy – scar tissue and new blood vessels, which are weak and bleed easily, develop on the retina, this can result in some loss of vision

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy

During the initial stages, retinopathy does not cause any noticeable symptoms. You may not realise that your retina is damaged until the later stages, when your vision becomes affected.

If you have diabetes and start to notice problems with your vision, contact your GP or diabetes care team immediately.

Possible symptoms of late-stage retinopathy include:

  • shapes floating in your field of vision (floaters)  
  • blurred vision 
  • reduced night vision
  • sudden blindness

Diagnosing diabetic retinopathy

As retinopathy can cause blindness, it is very important that it is identified and treated as early as possible.

The NHS Diabetic Eye Screening Programme aims to reduce the risk of vision loss in people with diabetes. This is done by identifying retinopathy at an early stage and, if necessary, ensuring that appropriate treatment is given.

Everyone with diabetes who is 12 years of age or over is invited for screening once a year.

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

To reduce your risk of developing retinopathy, it is important to control your blood sugar level and keep your blood pressure as close to normal as possible.

Other steps that you can take to help prevent retinopathy include:

  • attending your annual screening appointment
  • informing your GP if you notice any changes to your vision (do not wait until your next screening appointment)
  • taking your medication as prescribed
  • losing weight (if you're overweight) and eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • exercising regularly
  • giving up smoking

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy

Treatment for retinopathy will depend on the stage the condition has reached. For example, if retinopathy is identified in its early stages, it may be possible to treat it by controlling your diabetes more effectively.

If you have more advanced retinopathy, you may need to have injections into your eye or laser surgery to prevent further damage to your eyes.

Current research, funded by National Eye Research Centre is investigating using eye drops to stop blood vessels in the retina from leaking. This research is being conducted by Professor David Bates at Nottingham University, read more here.

Please support our appeal to continue this research to find new and more effective treatments for diabetic retinopathy.


For full medical information about diabetic retinopathy, please visit the NHS website.