Treating diabetic retinopathy 

Diabetic retinopathy usually only requires specific treatment when it reaches an advanced stage and there's a risk to your vision.

It's typically offered if diabetic eye screening detects stage three (proliferative) retinopathy, or if you have symptoms caused by diabetic maculopathy.

At all stages, managing your diabetes is crucial.

Read about the stages of diabetic retinopathy for more information about what these terms mean.

Managing your diabetes

The most important part of your treatment is to keep your diabetes under control.

In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, controlling your diabetes can help prevent vision problems developing.

In the more advanced stages, when your vision is affected or at risk, keeping your diabetes under control can help stop the condition getting worse.

Read about what you can do to reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy progressing.

Treatments for advanced diabetic retinopathy

For diabetic retinopathy that is threatening or affecting your sight, the main treatments are:

  • laser treatment – to treat the growth of new blood vessels at the back of the eye (retina) in cases of proliferative diabetic retinopathy, and to stabilise some cases of maculopathy
  • eye injections – to treat severe maculopathy that's threatening your sight
  • eye surgery  to remove blood or scar tissue from the eye if laser treatment isn't possible because retinopathy is too advanced

Laser treatment

Laser treatment is used to treat new blood vessels at the back of the eyes in the advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy. This is done because the new blood vessels tend to be very weak and often cause bleeding into the eye.

Treatment can help stabilise the changes in your eyes caused by your diabetes and stop your vision getting any worse, although it won't usually improve your sight.

Laser treatment:

  • involves shining a laser into your eyes – you'll be given local anaesthetic drops to numb your eyes; eye drops are used to widen your pupils and special contact lenses are used to hold your eyelids open and focus the laser onto your retina
  • normally takes around 20-40 minutes
  • is usually carried out on an outpatient basis, which means you won't need to stay in hospital overnight 
  • may require more than one visit to a laser treatment clinic
  • isn't usually painful, although you may feel a sharp pricking sensation when certain areas of your eye are being treated

Side effects

After treatment, you may have some side effects for a few hours. These can include:

  • blurred vision – you won't be able to drive until this passes, so you'll need to arrange for a friend or relative to drive you home, or take public transport
  • increased sensitivity to light – it might help to wear sunglasses until your eyes have adjusted
  • aching or discomfort – over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol, should help

Possible complications

You should be told about the risks of treatment in advance. Potential complications include:

  • reduced night or peripheral (side) vision – some people may have to stop driving as a result of this
  • bleeding into the eye or objects floating in your vision (floaters)
  • being able to "see" the pattern made by the laser on the back of your eye for a few months
  • a small, but permanent, blind spot close to the centre of your vision

Get medical advice if you notice that your sight gets worse after treatment.

Eye injections

In some cases of diabetic maculopathy, injections of a medicine called anti-VEGF may be given directly into your eyes to prevent new blood vessels forming at the back of the eyes.

The main medicines used are called ranibizumab (Lucentis) and aflibercept (Eylea). These can help stop the problems in your eyes getting worse, and may also lead to an improvement in your vision.

During treatment:

  • the skin around your eyes will be cleaned and covered with a sheet
  • small clips will be used to keep your eyes open
  • you'll be given local anaesthetic drops to numb your eyes
  • a very fine needle is carefully guided into your eyeball and the injection is given

The injections are usually given once a month to begin with. Once your vision starts to stabilise, they'll be stopped or given less frequently.

Injections of steroid medication may sometimes be given instead of anti-VEGF injections, or if the anti-VEGF injections don't help.

Risks and side effects

Possible risks and side effects of anti-VEGF injections include:

  • eye irritation or discomfort
  • bleeding inside the eye
  • floaters or a feeling of having something in your eye
  • watery or dry, itchy eyes

There's also a risk that the injections could cause blood clots to form, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke. This risk is small, but it should be discussed with you before you give your consent to treatment.

The main risk with steroid injections is increased pressure inside the eye.

Eye surgery

Surgery may be carried out to remove some of the vitreous humour from the eye. This is the transparent, jelly-like substance that fills the space behind the lens of the eye.

The operation, known as vitreoretinal surgery, may be needed if:

  • a large amount of blood has collected in your eye
  • there's extensive scar tissue that's likely to cause, or has already caused, retinal detachment

During the procedure, the surgeon will make a small incision in your eye before removing some of the vitreous humour, removing any scar tissue and using a laser to prevent a further deterioration in your vision.

Vitreoretinal surgery is usually carried out under local anaesthetic and sedation. This means you will not experience any pain or have any awareness of the surgery being performed.

After the procedure

You should be able to go home on the same day or the day after your surgery.

For the first few days, you may need to wear a patch over your eye. This is because activities such as reading and watching television can quickly tire your eye to begin with.

You will probably have blurred vision after the operation. This should improve gradually, although it may take several months for your vision to fully return to normal.

Your surgeon will advise you about any activities you should avoid during your recovery.

Risks and side effects

Possible risks of vitreoretinal surgery include:

  • developing a cataract
  • further bleeding into the eye
  • retinal detachment
  • fluid build-up in the cornea (outer layer at the front of the eye)
  • infection in the eye

There's also a small chance that you will need further retinal surgery afterwards. Your surgeon will explain the risks to you.

Page last reviewed: 26/01/2016

Next review due: 01/01/2019