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Is Diabetic Retinopathy Reversible?

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If you’re among the millions of people living with diabetes, you may have heard of a condition called “diabetic retinopathy.” This is a serious eye condition that can develop if you don’t take steps to manage your diabetes effectively. While an optometrist can monitor your eye health during a diabetic eye exam, what happens if you’re starting to develop diabetic retinopathy? Is diabetic retinopathy reversible?

When diabetic retinopathy begins to damage the eyes, it can lead to blurry vision, retinal damage, or permanent vision loss. This damage is permanent and can’t be reversed. This is why monitoring your blood sugar levels and following a healthy lifestyle is essential.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic metabolic condition that’s closely associated with elevated levels of blood sugar. This occurs for 1 of 2 reasons: either the body doesn’t produce enough insulin (a hormone essential to regulating blood sugar), or your cells don’t properly respond to insulin.

There are 2 major types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes: Often diagnosed in children and young adults, where the body doesn’t produce insulin.
  • Type 2 diabetes: The most common type, where the body’s cells do not respond to insulin properly.

While diabetes can be effectively managed with insulin injections, a strict diet, and the monitoring of your blood sugar levels, it can be a complicated condition. Extended periods of high blood sugar are closely linked with serious damage to the heart, brain, kidneys, nerves, and more. 

This condition strains and damages the blood vessels throughout your body, making it essential to properly manage your diabetes if you live with this condition.

How Does Diabetes Affect the Eye?

The eye is an unbelievably complex organ, with an entire network of exact systems that rely on each other to create your visual system. Near the back of your eye, an entire network of tiny, sensitive blood vessels helps carry oxygen and nutrients to your retina.

Diabetes damages blood vessels throughout your body, and the eye isn’t protected from this damage. High blood sugar levels can begin to damage these delicate blood vessels and can cause them to swell, leak, or even grow abnormally. This is diabetic retinopathy.

What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a progressive condition that affects the retina, the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye. There are several stages of diabetic retinopathy:

  • Mild nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy
  • Moderate nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy
  • Severe nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy
  • Proliferative diabetic retinopathy

Mild Nonproliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

In the initial stages of DR, the blood vessels at the back of the eye near the retina can swell or bulge as they become weaker due to elevated blood sugar levels. These blood vessels can start to leak tiny amounts of fluid into the retina, which can cause swelling. There are usually next to no symptoms during this stage.

Moderate Nonproliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

At this stage, the tiny blood vessels swell further. They begin to restrict or block blood flow to the retina. This leaves the retina needing nourishment as it can’t get the vitamins and nutrients needed to remain healthy.

This stage may cause mild-to-moderate blurry vision if there is a noticeable buildup of fluids.

Severe Nonproliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

At this stage, many blood vessels in the retina are swollen, blocked, or obstructed. When this occurs, the blood flow to the retina is severely impacted. This triggers the body to begin growing new blood vessels in the area.

However, because the blood vessels are all weak—including the newly developing ones—they’re prone to bleeding and leaking. This can result in more significant blurry vision, dark spots, and even patches of vision loss throughout your field of view. This vision loss is likely irreversible.

Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

This is the advanced stage of this disease. New blood vessels continue growing throughout the retina but are weak and prone to bleeding. This causes scar tissue to form throughout the eye.

In some cases, this scar tissue can start to tug on the retina. It can even pull the retina away from the back of your eye, fully detaching it in a condition called “retinal detachment.” This can lead to permanent blindness or a significant loss of vision.

Diabetic Retinopathy Symptoms

In the earlier stages, diabetic retinopathy rarely causes any symptoms. You may have mildly blurry vision, but until the condition progresses, you likely won’t notice much of a change. However, even with no symptoms, the condition could still develop in the back of your eye.

In later stages, diabetic retinopathy may cause:

  • Blurred or distorted vision
  • Fluctuating vision
  • Difficulty with color recognition
  • Dark or empty areas in your vision
  • Permanent vision loss
  • Retinal detachment

The damage from diabetic retinopathy is permanent. Once vision is lost, it can’t be restored.

Can You Permanently Cure Diabetic Retinopathy?

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for diabetes or diabetic retinopathy. Any damage that causes vision loss or any problems with the retina is irreversible.

This is why it’s so essential to take care of managing your diabetes properly. By managing this condition and controlling blood sugar levels, you can significantly lower your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.

A woman sitting on a couch eating a bowl of fruits.

It helps to take a multi-pronged approach. Try to:

  • Keep your blood sugar levels within a normal range
  • Manage your blood pressure
  • Control your cholesterol
  • Follow a balanced diet
  • Regularly exercise to improve your overall health

While diabetic retinopathy is not reversible, you can help slow its advancement and lower your risk. This may lead to preserving your vision later in life. 

If you live with diabetes, it can help to schedule diabetic eye exams at least once a year. If your optometrist recommends visiting more often, follow their advice; this way, you can effectively monitor any changes occurring in your eye and preserve your vision in the long term.

Schedule Your Next Eye Exam

If you need eye care in Minneapolis, visit our team at Perspectives Vision Clinic. Whether you need a diabetic eye exam or a regular comprehensive eye exam, we can help. Book an appointment with us, and let’s work together to preserve your vision.


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  • Written by Dr. Marcie Nichols

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