The earliest signs of diabetes-related retinopathy may be difficult to detect. However, you may notice blurriness, dark spots, or floaters in your vision.

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Diabetic retinopathy is a complication many people with diabetes eventually experience, especially if they’ve lived with diabetes for a long time. It occurs from damage to the blood vessels in the eye (called the retina) from prolonged periods of high blood sugar.

Diabetic retinopathy affects more than one-third of all people with diabetes. Some research estimates as many as 75% of people with type 1 diabetes and 50% of people with type 2 diabetes have diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is a very serious complication, consisting of over 80% of vision loss and blindness in people with diabetes. That said, the signs and symptoms of diabetic retinopathy are not always easy to identify.

This article explains the first sign of diabetic retinopathy and what you can do if you’re experiencing symptoms of this common diabetes complication.

In the early stage of diabetic retinopathy, people often do not have symptoms. The damage to the blood vessels in the eye is usually not severe enough to cause trouble with your vision.

This is why it’s so important to visit your eye doctor regularly. They can do a routine but comprehensive diabetic retinal screening, which is usually recommended yearly.

Changes can occur in the eye quickly, so even missing a few routine eye doctor appointments can miss diabetic retinopathy in its earliest stages.

Diabetic retinopathy at a glance

Diabetic retinopathy is damage to the light-sensitive blood vessels of the eye.

Once you begin to experience symptoms, they may include:

  • blurriness
  • dark spots in your vision
  • difficulty differentiating colors
  • floaters in the eye

Early stage and less severe cases may be treated with improved blood sugars, while later stage cases may require injections, laser treatments, and surgery.

Read more about diabetic retinopathy in general as well as the different stages of this diabetes-related complication.

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Diabetic retinopathy is a progressive disease. This means that without treatment, the condition continues to worsen, and may even cause blindness.

Continued changes to your vision may include symptoms that did not appear before, such as:

  • blurry vision
  • having trouble focusing
  • floaters
  • dark spots in the center of your vision
  • difficulty deciphering colors
  • blind spots

There is no cure for diabetic retinopathy. However, if it’s detected in its early stages, you may be able to prevent it from getting worse with certain lifestyle strategies.

For example, you can:

  • test your blood sugars regularly
  • eat a nutritious, balanced diet
  • not smoke (or quit if you do)
  • exercise regularly
  • keep your A1C level at 7% or lower

In fact, if your condition is in the early stages (mild or moderate non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy) and you are only experiencing mild symptoms, your symptoms may improve with lower blood sugar and A1C levels.

This is why it is very important to visit your eye doctor at least once a year, even if you do not have any symptoms of diabetic retinopathy. The earlier you get a diagnosis, the better you can prevent the condition from progressing.

There are ways to slow and stop the progression of diabetic retinopathy, especially if it’s diagnosed in the early stages.

You can improve mild symptoms of diabetic retinopathy by:

  • keeping blood sugar levels within a healthy range
  • lowering your A1C
  • getting regular exercise
  • eating a nutritious, balanced diet

However, if your doctor diagnoses late stage diabetic retinopathy, you may need laser treatments or surgery to save your vision.

These options include the following:

  • Photocoagulation is a laser treatment used to limit the growth of new blood vessels in the eye.
  • Vitrectomy is a surgery where the vitreous gel is removed from the eye to help improve vision.
  • Anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) is an injectable medication for the eye that can slow the abnormal growth of blood vessels in the retina. This injection can help shrink blood vessels and preserve vision.
  • Steroid injections can be injected into the eye to help ease symptoms. However, steroids can affect your blood sugar levels.

Diabetic retinopathy is a common diabetes complication, but the early signs of the disease can be hard to detect.

The first stage of diabetic retinopathy often has no symptoms. As it progresses, you may experience blurry vision, dark spots in your field of vision, difficulty deciphering colors, and blind spots. If not treated, diabetic retinopathy can cause blindness.

An eye doctor can detect and diagnose diabetic retinopathy long before you’re experiencing symptoms. They can also guide you on how to slow or even stop this diabetes complication from getting worse.