Diabetic retinopathy is the most common eye disease caused by diabetes. It results in damage to the retina, the layer of light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that records images, like film in a camera.
Like many people with diabetes, Kathy Davis, 51, a registered nurse in suburban Toledo, Ohio, never experienced any symptoms to warn her of eye complications.
She discovered she had diabetic retinopathy through a routine eye exam. Now she sees a retina specialist every six to eight weeks. So far, she's had a dozen or so laser treatments to help preserve her vision.
But thanks to a supportive family and an employer that allows her to break away from work for frequent doctor appointments, Davis remains upbeat.
"I know that if I continue to control my blood sugars and do everything I can to stay healthy, including maintaining all the regular doctor appointments, I will have a better chance of holding off the devastating effects of this illness," she reasons.
You may have temporary vision loss after laser treatment
Diabetic retinopathy does not require treatment in its early stages unless the person has macular edema. But as it progresses, doctors use a procedure known as scatter laser treatment to shrink abnormal blood vessels. Between 1,000 and 2,000 burns are applied to areas of the retina away from the macula.
Both treatments may be performed in a doctor's office or eye clinic. Typically the prep for this procedure is minimal. Your doctor will dilate your pupil and apply drops to numb the eye. Sometimes anesthetic is injected around and behind the eye to prevent discomfort.
Before Davis undergoes scatter laser treatment, she takes 800 mg of Motrin and receives a local anesthetic to her eyes. "The procedure hurts a lot," she says. "You have to hold still while he shoots this very bright light into your eye. You can feel the burning and very sharp pain in the area. It seems like it lasts forever, but in reality it only lasts about 30 to 45 seconds."
Immediately afterward, Davis is totally blind in that eye for up to three minutes before her vision is restored. "I usually have a pretty bad headache afterward that lasts about two to three hours," she says. The treatment? Lying down in a dark room.
While laser treatment remains the gold standard for restoring vision, researchers are testing new therapies that attack retinopathy at its roots. One class of drugs, called vascular endothelial growth factor inhibitors, for example, is designed to thwart the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the eye.