Overview of Retinopathy

What It Is: The retina—light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye—gets damaged, blurring vision. In nonproliferative retinopathy, blood vessels in the retina may bleed and leak fluid, and there may be swelling in the central retina. In proliferative retinopathy, the more advanced form of the disease, abnormal new blood vessels grow and can bleed into the center of the eye. Diabetes is the main cause of retinopathy, which affects more than 4.4 million Americans 40 and older and is the leading cause of new cases of blindness each year among people ages 20 to 74.

Symptoms: None in the early stages. As the disease progresses spots, dark streaks or a red film affect vision; blurred vision; poor night vision. Usually affects both eyes. Proliferative retinopathy can lead to bleeding into the eye, which may clear over weeks to months. Over time, abnormal blood vessels create scar tissue that pulls the retina away from the back of the eye, causing retinal detachment. It may also lead to glaucoma that is difficult to treat.

How It's Treated: Tiny laser burns to the retina destroy abnormal blood vessels and reduce swelling, explains retina specialist Janet Sunness, M.D., medical director of the Richard E. Hoover Rehabilitative Services for Low Vision and Blindness at the Greater Baltimore Vision Center. Surgery to clear out blood or repair a detached retina can help. To ease retinopathy, lower blood pressure and control blood sugar.

How to Prevent: Lower your risk for diabetes. Exercise, lose weight if you need to, eat healthfully and watch your blood pressure. If you develop diabetes, control your blood sugar levels and get your eyes checked regularly. The longer you have diabetes the greater your risk. A study published in Nature Medicine found that a diet rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids—think fish—may prevent retinopathy and slow its progression in mice. While more research is needed, it can't hurt to add more fish to your diet, especially since it's good for your heart.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 15 Mar 2010

Last Modified: 11 Sep 2015