Can Diabetic Retinopathy Be Reversed?

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Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes and the most common cause of vision loss or blindness in people with diabetes. It can affect people with any type of diabetes (chronic high blood sugar), whether it's type 1, type 2, or gestational diabetes. More than half of people with diabetes will develop diabetic retinopathy.

There is no cure for diabetic retinopathy, but there are treatments that can help prevent, delay, or in some people, help reverse some loss of vision. This article will explain more about what it is, how it's treated, and what you can do to help protect your eyes.

Eye doctor analyzes eye exam data

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What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Over time, diabetes damages the blood vessels in your body. The damaged blood vessels can leak blood that does not then reach the retina, which is the part of the eye that sends signals to the brain. Your vision may become cloudy or blurry.

In response to the cutoff blood supply, the body attempts to grow new blood vessels. But these new blood vessels are small and weak and also leak. That can damage the part of the retina called the macula, which is essential to clear central vision and seeing color.

If the retina is scarred, vision loss can be severe or even complete. Experts divide diabetic retinopathy into two stages: non-proliferative and proliferative.

Types

The two types of diabetic retinopathy are characterized by how advanced the condition is, as follows:

Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy: In this early phase, blood vessels in the eye weaken and bulge and may leak fluid and blood. The body also is not growing new blood vessels to compensate. There may be no symptoms or only mild symptoms like difficulty seeing things that are far away or trouble reading. The changes may come and go.

Proliferative diabetic retinopathy: In the more advanced stage, the retina isn't getting enough oxygen from the damaged blood vessels. The new blood vessels begin to grow, and they can leak. People may see "floaters," dark spots in their central vision, streaks like spider webs. or have difficulty seeing at night.

In severe cases, scar tissue can detach the retina from the back of the eye, and symptoms become worse, with many floaters, flashes of light, or a shadow over your vision.

You can also develop a swelling in your retina called macular edema, or glaucoma, in which newly formed blood vessels block the eye from draining and raise eye pressure. Glaucoma can damage the optic nerve. If it's not treated, it can lead to severe vision loss and even blindness.

Treatments

If your healthcare provider diagnoses you with diabetic retinopathy, but your vision is unaffected, they will monitor your vision with eye exams every few months. Make sure you go to all follow-up appointments.

If your vision changes in any way, treatment should start as soon as possible. Quick action is important in treating diabetic retinopathy to minimize the damage. There are several options.

Intravitreal Injections

Injections of medications called anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) drugs can help stop or slow the formation of the new blood vessels and delay the damage to vision from diabetic retinopathy.

Anti-VEGF can stabilize the condition in about 90% of people, and may even reverse some damage in about 30% of people. Vision damage may be permanent, however.

Injections of steroids, which reduce swelling, can also be helpful in stabilizing retinopathy so it doesn't get worse. Your eye will be numbed before any injections.

Laser Surgery

Lasers can cauterize (seal with heat) leaking blood vessels in the eye. If the retinopathy is advanced, healthcare providers can use a technique that creates a pattern of tiny wounds on the retina. This can shrink newly formed vessels or even make them go away.

Laser surgery may affect some of your peripheral (side) vision, but it can protect your more essential central vision.

Vitrectomy

If the bleeding in your eye is significant or you have retinal scarring, your provider may suggest a vitrectomy. During a vitrectomy, the medical team removes the gel-like substance in your eye and replaces it with saline (salt water), gas, or oil.

They can then extract the blood or fluids that are making your vision blurry, remove scar tissue, or reattach the retina. As you heal, your body absorbs the temporary substance and replaces it with the natural material that fills the front of your eye, called aqueous humor.

Facts About Reversing Diabetes

The body's own ability to manage diabetes depends on what type you have. If you have type 2, losing weight can often help lower your blood sugar and stop the damage that high levels can create. Experts call it remission, when the disease is inactive, rather than reversal.

If you have type 1 diabetes, which is the body's inability to make insulin, you can control your blood sugar with diet and medication, but you cannot reverse it. There is promising clinical research for a cure for type 1 diabetes, but it has not yet been reached.

A healthy lifestyle and following your healthcare provider's advice is your best bet when it comes to preventing diabetes from damaging your health.

Prognosis

The outlook for a person with diabetic retinopathy depends on how early the condition is diagnosed and whether there is a swollen macula due to macular edema. Advances in testing make it easier to find retinopathy early, when it can often be stabilized and has not yet affected vision.

If it is more advanced and there is swelling and loss of central vision, the damage can be permanent. There is always a chance for it to progress since diabetes is a lifelong condition. You'll need eye exams on a regular basis to monitor your vision, and you may need further treatment.

Although diabetic retinopathy is common in people with diabetes, with advances in treatment, less than 5% have severe vision loss.

Prevention

If you have diabetes, you can help prevent or slow the development of diabetic retinopathy by managing your blood sugar levels with a healthy lifestyle and following your diabetes team's recommendation. Consider doing the following:

  • Eating a healthy diet and staying at a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Controlling your blood pressure with medication if needed
  • Minimizing alcohol and tobacco intake
  • Controlling your blood sugar with medication if prescribed
  • Managing your cholesterol with medication if prescribed

One natural remedy holds promise for diabetic retinopathy, but it is not a substitute for medical monitoring and treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about AREDs 2 supplements, which are a combination of vitamins and nutrients that may help improve the ability to see color and contrast as well as maintaining better vision.

Summary

Diabetic retinopathy (when high blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the eyes) is a very common complication of diabetes. It can lead to blurry vision, trouble reading, spots and streaks in your vision, and even a loss of vision, especially in the central part of your sight.

There are good treatments today for diabetic retinopathy, but they work best if it's diagnosed early. If you have diabetes, get your eyes checked and follow your healthcare provider's advice for follow-up screenings.

Prompt treatment can minimize the damage to your eyes, and managing your blood sugar levels is one of the best ways to prevent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy. Natural treatments include taking AREDs 2 supplements. Talk to your healthcare provider about them.

A Word From Verywell

The prospect of vision loss is scary, but you are not powerless. A healthy lifestyle, losing weight if you are overweight and have type 2 diabetes, and managing your blood sugar levels will not only help keep your eyes healthy, but the rest of your body as well.

If you notice vision changes, don't wait and think they will go away. Your best bet is to see your healthcare provider as soon as you can. Some treatments need to be done right away to preserve your eyesight.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to go blind from diabetic retinopathy?

    If diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed early, treatment can stabilize your vision. If it is not found till the advanced stage, treatment can still help. If you begin to lose your vision, it usually takes several years for it to occur. Today's treatments are effective for many people and preserve some vision, even if there is permanent damage.

  • Can lowering blood sugar improve vision?

    If you have type 2 diabetes, lowering your blood sugar, often by losing weight and eating a healthy diet, means you are less likely to have damaged eyes. If you have some vision problems from diabetic retinopathy, other kinds of treatment can help improve it in about a third of people, but prevention by managing your blood sugar is your best bet.

  • Does blurry vision from diabetes go away?

    Some of the blurriness from diabetes can be treated by injections done when your eyes are numb or sometimes with laser treatments. This may improve your vision, but it does not guarantee that all the blurriness will go away.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. National Eye Institute. Laser treatment for diabetic retinopathy.

  7. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is vitrectomy?

  8. Diabetes UK. Reversing type 2 diabetes.

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By Nancy LeBrun
In addition to her extensive health and wellness writing, Nancy has written about many general interest topics for publications as diverse as Newsweek, Teen Vogue, abcnews.com, and Craftsmanship Quarterly. She has authored a book about documentary filmmaking, a screenplay about a lost civil rights hero, and ghostwritten several memoirs.