Can Diabetic Retinopathy Be Reversed?

Retinopathy simply means disease of the retina, the part of the eye that senses light.  If the blood vessels in the eye become damaged the ability to carry fresh blood to the retina is affected and this in turn affects our ability to see.  Despite scary stories, this does not lead to inevitable blindness, as long as appropriate and timely action is taken there’s little need to fear.

Diabetic retinopathy is a common side effect of consistently high blood sugar and cannot be reversed.  It can, however, be slowed or stopped if dealt with quickly.  This means making appropriate changes to your diabetes management and lifestyle to lower blood sugar levels now and into the future.

If you are worried right now, you should understand that it takes time for retinopathy to reach a point where it permanently damages your eyes.  This means you have the opportunity, right now, to take positive action and seek qualified help to guide you through the changes required to keep your vision healthy.  Keep reading to understand how simple steps can make your diabetic life better and keep diabetic retinopathy at bay.

Can vision be restored after diabetic retinopathy?

As much as the term diabetic retinopathy has become synonymous with blindness it is far from it.  Diabetic retinopathy does not mean losing your sight, however, restoring vision is perhaps a bit misleading too, as once the eye becomes damaged it is unlikely that full vision can be regained.  Yet, continued worsening of your vision can be stopped and, depending on how much damage has occurred, a reversal is possible.

What does this mean?  Well, by getting regular eye screening it is possible to detect problems before they ever affect your eyesight.  Eye screening is the term given to annual eye exams, involving a couple of eye drops to dilate the retina, which allows digital photographs of the back of the eye and surrounding blood vessels to be taken.  Although a full review is usually not possible right there and then, you should receive some feedback to help alleviate any worries you may have and receive a full hospital review in the following weeks.

These eye screenings are nothing to worry about and, to put it into stark contrast, doing nothing will ultimately lead to worsening vision and blindness.  Diabetes reviews should never be feared or seen as arduous, they are there to help keep you healthy and avoid serious diabetes complications occurring, of which blindness is one.  If diabetes continues to be managed in the same way that brought a noticeable deterioration in your eyesight then it is foolish to believe that it will stop or get better without change.

Deterioration can be different for many people but common signs are:

  • Shapes floating across your field of vision.  Often called ‘floaters’, they occur more frequently as we get older and are not necessarily a sign of diabetic retinopathy, however, you should get your eyes checked if you are not currently undergoing regular checkups.
  • Blurred or patchy vision is often a sign of high blood sugar.  If you are diabetic you are probably familiar with this sensation on the occasions your blood sugar rises too high but find vision returning as sugar levels drop back into the healthy range.  However, if your vision continues to remain slightly blurred then, again, this should be looked at as a matter of urgency.
  • Eye pain or redness around the eyes.
  • Difficulty seeing in the dark, which means something beyond allowing your eyes to get used to a dark room at bedtime.  If you still struggle to see much of anything in the dark after a short time getting accustomed, booking an eye screening should be your next move.
  • And, in rare cases there can be a sudden loss of vision.

Again, the above list does not necessarily mean you have retinopathy. Still, much like any other sign of diabetes, it is always best to get checked rather than leave it and hope - especially with the eyes - damage can be permanent.

How Long does it take to go blind from diabetic retinopathy?

By keeping regular appointments with the optometrist or eye doctor you will give yourself the very best chance of good eye health for life.  Although not a reason to be laid back about your diabetic health, it can take several years for diabetic retinopathy to reach a stage where sight could be affected.  Bear in mind that the majority of recently diagnosed type-2 diabetics have had high blood sugar for up to five years before diagnosis, therefore, you really need to get on top of your diabetic health at the earliest to avoid irreparable damage. .

There are three key stages of diabetic retinopathy:1

  1. Background retinopathy occurs when tiny bulges begin to appear on the smallest blood vessels of the eye. These are not uncommon and do not mean you’re about to go blind.  They will often be pointed out to you at the end of an eye screening from the retinal 

photographs. However, if these are found on your blood vessels it might be a good time to review how you are managing your diabetes care and make appropriate changes to stop it from worsening

  1. Pre-proliferative retinopathy is the point when damage has become more severe.  There will be significant bleeding into the eye from damaged blood vessels and there is a real chance your vision could become affected.  If you are not doing anything to address the way you are managing your diabetes then this really is a final warning.  You should be placed on more regular eye checkups - potentially as often as every 3 months
  1. Proliferative retinopathy occurs when scar tissue has begun to form on the eye and some vision is likely lost.  The retina can become detached from the eye quite possibly requiring surgery.  Any loss of vision at this stage will be permanent and the likelihood of blindness is high.

Although stage 3 might seem like a long way off, and there’s no need to worry, studies have shown that after 15 years 98% of type-1 diabetics and 78% of type-2 diabetics have some form of retinopathy.2 and over 1,000 people go blind with diabetic retinopathy every year in the UK alone.3  The last paragraph will tell you how NOT to become one of them.

What is the best treatment for diabetic retinopathy?

As with everything diabetes, the best treatment for diabetic retinopathy is to stay healthy.  This means taking regular exercise, eating a nutritious diet full of fibre and protein and keeping on top of your blood sugars, whether that means: medication, taking the appropriate insulin, keeping stress to a minimum and getting into a regular sleep pattern - all good jumping off points if not an exhaustive list.

Anyone with diabetes is at risk from diabetic retinopathy but there are specific criteria that can put you at greater risk:

  • If you have had any sort of diabetes for an extended time - anything over 5 years fits directly into this category
  • If your blood sugar remains consistently high - the longer this continues above the healthy range of 4.0-8.0mmol/l (72-145 mg/dl), the more likely you are to suffer diabetes complications, irrespective of 5 years or more
  • Have high blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Being pregnant puts you at greater risk from retinopathy and NICE guidelines recommend keeping your blood sugar below 7.8mmol/l(140 mg/dl /dl) throughout pregnancy

If you can keep these points in check your risk of diabetic retinopathy should be low.

Is diabetic retinopathy permanent?

Diabetic retinopathy is not, necessarily, permanent should it be treated early.  The best way of doing this is to keep all your diabetic checks and screens, they are vitally important and allow for the best understanding of your diabetic health.  Just because you feel OK is, unfortunately, not an accurate marker of overall health.

As far as diabetic retinopathy is concerned, If you fail to look after your eye health and the blood vessels become damaged, yes, diabetic retinopathy will be permanent.  Use the steps listed and do not let that happen to you!

This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Rick Ashworth

BSc (Hons), Psychology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, England
I'm a type-1 diabetic and ultra-endurance athlete, focusing on type-2 diabetes remission for life, not a 30-day intervention. Healthy is complication-free for life, dying of old age, not illness

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