Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes and can lead to severe sight loss.

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the retina. 

The retina contains light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye responsible for receiving and organising visual information.

When blood sugar is very high, it can damages the tiny blood vessels that supply the retina. Damage to these blood vessels can affect vision. If undiagnosed and untreated, diabetic retinopathy can cause severe sight loss.

How common is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy can affect up to 80 per cent of people who have had diabetes for 10 years or more.

Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of sight loss in the United Kingdom among people of working age. It can develop in anybody with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

In Scotland, 111,000 people are estimated to be living with diabetic retinopathy. Of those 111,000 people, it is estimated that 10,200 individuals are living with a severe form of the condition.

What does Diabetic Retinography look like

How diabetic retinopathy affects the eye

The image shows the retina – the layer at the very back of the eyeball.

The eye on the right is affected by diabetic retinopathy, while the image on the left is not affected.

Normal eyeball and then an eyeball affected by diabetic retinopathy

What are symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

Early signs of the condition can be picked up by taking photographs of the eyes during diabetic eye screening. 

Everyone with diabetes who is 12 years old or over is invited for an annual eye screening.

People with diabetes should contact their doctor if they experience any of the following:

  • gradually worsening vision
  • floating shapes in their field of vision
  • patchy vision
  • eye pain and redness.
The impact that diabetic Retinopathy can have on vision.

What treatments are available for diabetic retinopathy?

Managing your diabetes is the best course of action to minimise the risk of diabetic retinopathy.

If screening detects significant problems that indicated someone’s vision is at risk, there are a number of treatments available:

The main treatments are:

  • laser treatment
  • injections of medication into your eyes
  • an operation to remove blood or scar tissue from your eyes.

Sight Scotland's Support Line can help you find an appropriate eye clinic in your local area. 

Research into diabetic retinopathy

Sight Scotland and our sister charity Sight Scotland Veterans fund ophthalmology research through the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

To better understand diabetic retinopathy, we funded a study that follows patients undergoing a conversion to insulin pump therapy. This research examines whether changes in patients’ retinopathy relate to changes in their glucose control.

Following this, NHS Lothian modified its practice.

Patients now have a retinal eye screening when they begin their insulin pump therapy, and again after three months. This screening stage allows for intervention which might save people’s eyesight.

Medical research photo of an eye looking at a microscope

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