New blood vessels in your eye can signal eye disease. This is called neovascularization, and it’s often a sign of diabetes-related retinopathy.

When your body makes new blood vessels in places they weren’t before, it’s called neovascularization. When it happens in your eye, it can be a warning sign of advanced eye disease, especially if you have diabetes and the complication known as diabetic retinopathy.

Here’s what you need to know about neovascularization and its relationship to diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is a diabetes complication that can damage your retina, leading to vision loss or blindness. The retina is the part of your eye that recognizes light and communicates with your brain through your optic nerve.

diabetic retinopathy blood vesselsShare on Pinterest
Phanie / Alamy Stock Photo

When you have diabetes, high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels all over your body. That includes the tiny blood vessels in your eyes. Over time, high blood sugars can build up and can stop blood from reaching your retina. It can also damage the vessels and cause them to break or leak blood or fluid into your retina. The blood can cloud your vision.

Your body needs blood vessels to supply energy, nutrients, and oxygen to your retina and to remove waste products, the authors of a 2020 literature review explained. Your body may make new blood vessels in your eyes to replace the ones that aren’t working well. This is called neovascularization.

Sometimes the new blood cells grow in places where fluid normally drains from your eye. This can raise eye pressure. Increased eye pressure can damage the optic nerve, leading to vision loss.

When neovascularization develops in diabetic retinopathy, it progresses to an advanced stage that can cause vision loss and blindness.

Your body makes new vessels to compensate for the ones that aren’t working. The new ones often don’t work well, either. They frequently leak or bleed easily.

When diabetic retinopathy has entered the stage featuring neovascularization, it’s called proliferative diabetic retinopathy. It’s a more advanced form of diabetic eye disease that follows the first stage, non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

A 2016 study found that neovascularization is a hallmark of retinopathy and is strongly associated with retinal detachment. Too much bleeding in your eyes can cause scarring that leads to retinal detachment. That’s when the lining at the back of the eye separates from the rest of your eye.

In cases of diabetes-related vision loss, 25% are caused by proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

Some of the first symptoms of proliferative diabetic retinopathy are changes in how you see.

Vision changes include:

  • blurred vision
  • spots or floaters
  • problems seeing at night
  • distortion of central vision
  • central vision waviness
  • a black or gray area in your central vision
  • a missing spot in your central vision

If you notice changes in your vision, you might consider visiting an ophthalmologist. The BrightFocus Foundation explained that healthcare professionals could help save your vision with protein-blocking drugs, but only if you catch the problem early enough (weeks to months).

Other treatments include:

Because diabetes is the primary cause of neovascularization in diabetic retinopathy, early diagnosis is critical.

If you think you may have diabetes, see a healthcare professional right away. If you’ve already been diagnosed, you can manage the risk to your vision by:

  • refraining from smoking
  • abstaining from alcohol
  • exercising regularly
  • taking your medication
  • controlling your blood pressure
  • seeing your healthcare professionals regularly

Some people are more at risk of developing diabetes-related eye disease than others.

You may be more at risk for eye disease from diabetes if you have:

  • patterns of high blood sugar levels
  • untreated high blood pressure levels
  • had diabetes for a long time
  • high blood cholesterol and smoke
  • diabetic retinopathy and become pregnant

You’re more likely to lose your vision from diabetic eye disease if you are:

  • older
  • Black
  • Native American
  • Alaska Native
  • Hispanic
  • Pacific Islander

When diabetes-related high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels in your eye, it can lead to vision problems and eye conditions like diabetic retinopathy.

Sometimes, your eye will make new blood vessels in response to the lack of blood from the old ones, a process called neovascularization.

Neovascularization is a sign of advanced diabetic retinopathy and can cause vision loss. See your healthcare professional right away if you have diabetes and symptoms like vision changes.