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Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment & Management

  • Author: Abdhish R Bhavsar, MD; Chief Editor: Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP  more...
Updated: Jul 31, 2016

Approach Considerations

Controlling diabetes and maintaining the HbA1c level in the 6-7% range are the goals in the optimal management of diabetes and diabetic retinopathy. If the levels are maintained, then the progression of diabetic retinopathy is reduced substantially, according to The Diabetes Control and Complications Trial.[11]

The Early Treatment for Diabetic Retinopathy Study[21] has found that laser surgery for macular edema reduces the incidence of moderate visual loss (doubling of visual angle or roughly a 2-line visual loss) from 30% to 15% over a 3-year period.

The Diabetic Retinopathy Clinical Research network ( Randomized Trial Evaluating Ranibizumab Plus Prompt or Deferred Laser or Triamcinolone Plus Prompt Laser for Diabetic Macular Edema, known as the Laser-Ranibizumab-Triamcinolone for DME Study 2-year results demonstrated that ranibizumab with prompt or deferred focal/grid laser achieved superior visual acuity and optical coherence tomography (OCT) outcomes compared with focal/grid laser treatment alone. In the ranibizumab groups, approximately 50% of eyes had substantial improvement (10 or more letters) and 30% gained 15 or more letters. Intravitreal triamcinolone combined with focal/grid laser did not result in superior visual acuity outcomes compared with laser alone, but did appear to have a visual acuity benefit similar to ranibizumab in pseudophakic eyes.[26]

The Diabetic Retinopathy Study has found that adequate scatter laser panretinal photocoagulation reduces the risk of severe visual loss (< 5/200) by more than 50%.[22]


Glucose Control

The Diabetes Control and Complications Trial has found that intensive glucose control in patients with type 1 diabetes decreases the incidence and progression of diabetic retinopathy.[11, 12, 13]

The United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS), which involved newly diagnosed patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus, revealed that the risk of retinopathy was reduced through both improved glycemic control and improved blood pressure control. A 1% reduction in HbA1c reduced the risk for retinopathy by 31%, and a 10 mm Hg reduction in systolic blood pressure reduced photocoagulation or vitreous haemorrhage by 11%.[27] The ADA recommends that all patients with diabetes (type 2 and type 1) strive to maintain glycated hemoglobin levels of less than 7% (reflecting long-term glucose levels) to prevent or at least minimize the long-term complications of diabetes mellitus, including retinopathy.


Aspirin Therapy

The Early Treatment for Diabetic Retinopathy Study found that 650 mg of aspirin daily did not offer any benefit in preventing the progression of diabetes mellitus retinopathy. Additionally, aspirin was not observed to influence the incidence of vitreous hemorrhage in patients who required it for cardiovascular disease or other conditions.[21, 14]


Ovine Hyaluronidase Therapy

In large phase III clinical trials, intravitreal injections of ovine hyaluronidase (Vitrase) have been shown to be safe and to have modest efficacy for the clearance of severe vitreous hemorrhage. More than 70% of subjects in these studies had diabetes, and the most frequent etiology of the vitreous hemorrhage was proliferative diabetic retinopathy.[28]


VEGF Inhibitors

In a clinical trial comparing Eylea (aflibercept), Lucentis (ranibizumab), and Avastin (bevacizumab) for diabetic macular edema (DME), Eylea provided greater visual improvement, on average, than did the other 2 drugs for vision of 20/50 or worse at the start of the trial. The 3 drugs achieved similar average improvement for vision of 20/40 to 20/32. No major differences in safety were found for the 3 drugs.[29]

Investigators included 660 people with macular edema at 88 clinical trial sites across the US. Only people with vision of 20/32 or worse were eligible. About half the participants had 20/32 or 20/40 vision at time of enrollment, and the other half had vision of 20/50 or worse.

Participants were randomly assigned to receive Eylea (2.0 mg/0.05 mL), Avastin (1.25 mg/0.05 mL), or Lucentis (0.3 mg/0.05 mL) and were evaluated monthly. The drug was injected into the eye until the DME resolved or stabilized. Laser treatment was used if DME persisted without continual improvement after 6 months of injections.

Vision substantially improved for most participants at one year after the trial began. For people whose vision was 20/32 or 20/40 at the start of the trial, vision improved almost two lines on an eye chart in those receiving each of the 3 drugs. However, for those whose vision was 20/50 or worse at the start of the trial, Eylea improved vision on average almost four lines, Avastin improved vision on average almost 2.5 lines, and Lucentis improved vision on average almost 3 lines.

Eylea and Lucentis reduced the swelling of the macula more than Avastin. Also, a smaller percentage of participants on Eylea (36%) had laser treatment for persistent edema that did not resolve with anti-VEGF treatment alone, compared with participants on Avastin (56%) or Lucentis (46%).[29]

Ranibizumab (Lucentis) intravitreal injection was approved for diabetic retinopathy in patients with diabetic macular edema. Approval was based on the RISE and RIDE studies (n = 759). The trials measured the proportions of patients who gained 15 letters or more from baseline at month 36 in the sham/0.5 mg, 0.3 mg, and 0.5 mg ranibizumab groups. Results in each group were 19.2%, 36.8%, and 40.2%, respectively, in RIDE and 22.0%, 51.2%, and 41.6%, in RISE.

In the ranibizumab arms, reductions in central foveal thickness (CFT) seen at 24 months were, on average, sustained through month 36. Visual acuity (VA) gains and improvement in retinal anatomy achieved with ranibizumab at month 24 were sustained through month 36. In the third year, sham patients, while still masked, were eligible to cross over to monthly 0.5 mg ranibizumab. After crossover to 1 year of treatment with ranibizumab, average VA gains in the sham/0.5 mg group were lower compared with gains seen in the ranibizumab patients after 1 year of treatment (2.8 vs. 10.6 and 11.1 letters).[30]

Aflibercept intravitreal (Eylea) was approved for diabetic retinopathy with DME in March 2015. The two double-blind, randomized phase II clinical trials (VISTADME and VIVIDDME) were presented at the American Academy of Ophthalmology Annual Meeting, November 2013. Both studies measured the proportion of patients gaining 15 or more letters in VA from baseline as the primary endpoints for 52 weeks. Patients were randomized into 3 groups, including intravitreal aflibercept injection (IAI) 2 mg every 4 weeks (2q4), IAI 2 mg every 8 weeks after 5 initial monthly doses (2q8), or macular laser photocoagulation. The corresponding proportions of patients achieved the primary endpoint successfully were 41.6% and 31.1% versus 7.8% (P < 0.0001) in VISTA, and 32.4% and 33.3% versus 9.1% (P< 0.0001) in VIVID.[31]

Bevacizumab (Avastin) has been used off-label to treat vitreous hemorrhage. In addition, this agent has been used to treat optic nerve or retinal neovascularization as well as rubeosis.[32, 33] In August, 2011, FDA announced a warning regarding several cases of intravitreal infections associated with repackaged bevacizumab that was potentially due to poor aseptic compounding technique.[34] Bevacizumab is commonly used to treat DME throughout the world and is a much lower cost alternative.


Laser Photocoagulation

The advent of laser photocoagulation in the 1960s and early 1970s provided a noninvasive treatment modality that has a relatively low complication rate and a significant degree of success. This involves directing a high-focused beam of light energy to create a coagulative response in the target tissue. In nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy, laser treatment is indicated in the treatment of clinically significant macular edema. The strategy for treating macular edema depends on the type and extent of vessel leakage.

If the edema is due to leakage of specific microaneurysms, the leaking vessels are treated directly with focal laser photocoagulation.[15] In cases where the foci of leakage are nonspecific, a grid pattern of laser burns is applied. Medium intensity burns (100-200 µm) are placed 1 burn-size apart, covering the affected area. Other off-label potential treatments of diabetic macular edema include intravitreal triamcinolone acetonide (Kenalog) and bevacizumab; these medications can result in a substantial reduction or resolution of macular edema.


level of Activity

Maintaining a healthful lifestyle with regular exercise is important, especially for individuals with diabetes. Exercise can assist in maintaining optimal weight and with peripheral glucose absorption. This can help with improved diabetes control, which, in turn, can help reduce the complications of diabetes and diabetic retinopathy.


Treatment of Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

Panretinal photocoagulation

Panretinal photocoagulation (PRP) is the preferred form of treatment of proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR).[14, 15] It involves applying laser burns over the entire retina, sparing the central macular area, and may be performed using a variety of delivery systems, including the slit lamp, an indirect ophthalmoscope, and the EndoProbe.

Application starts in a circumference of 500 µm from the disc and 2 disc diameters from the fovea to wall off the central retina. Moderate intensity burns of 200-500 µm (gray-white burns) are placed 1 spot-size apart, except in areas of neovascularization where the entire frond is treated if DRS criteria are used, but most specialists today avoid directly treating neovascularization. This procedure is continued peripherally to achieve a total of 1200-1600 applications in 2 to 3 sessions.

The presence of high-risk PDR is an indication for immediate treatment.

In cases where macular edema and PDR coexist, laser treatments are performed: first, laser treatment is used for the macular edema; then for PDR, the PRP is spread over 3 to 4 sessions. If it is necessary to complete the 2 procedures at the same time, the PRP is applied initially to the nasal third of the retina.

The strategy for treating macular edema depends on the type and extent of vessel leakage. If the edema is due to focal leakage, microaneurysms are treated directly with laser photocoagulation. In cases where the foci of leakage are nonspecific, a grid pattern of laser burns is applied. Burns (100-200 μm) are placed 1 burn-size apart, covering the affected area.

The exact mechanism by which PRP works is not entirely understood. One theory is that destroying the hypoxic retina decreases the production of vasoproliferative factors, such as VEGF, thus reducing the rate of neovascularization. Another theory is that PRP allows increased diffusion of oxygen from the choroid, supplementing retinal circulation. The enhanced oxygen delivery also down-regulates vasoproliferative factor production and subsequent neovascularization.


Vitrectomy may be necessary in cases of long-standing vitreous hemorrhage (where visualization of the status of the posterior pole is too difficult), tractional retinal detachment, and combined tractional and rhegmatogenous retinal detachment. More uncommon indications include epiretinal membrane formation and macular dragging.

According to The Diabetic Retinopathy Vitrectomy Study, vitrectomy is advisable for eyes with vitreous hemorrhage that fails to resolve spontaneously within 6 months.[35] Early vitrectomy (< 6 mo, mean of 4 mo) may result in a slightly greater recovery of vision in patients with type I diabetes.

When treatment is delayed, monitoring the status of the posterior segment by ultrasound is mandatory to watch for signs of macular detachment.

The purpose of surgery is to remove the blood to permit evaluation and possible treatment of the posterior pole, to release tractional forces that pull on the retina, to repair a retinal detachment, and to remove the scaffolding into which the neovascular complexes may grow. Laser photocoagulation through indirect delivery systems or through the EndoProbe can be performed as an adjunctive procedure during surgery to initiate or continue laser treatment.


When laser photocoagulation is precluded in the presence of an opaque media, such as in cases of cataracts and vitreous hemorrhage, cryotherapy may be applied instead.

The principles behind the treatment are basically the same—that is, to ablate retinal tissue for oxygen demand to be decreased and to induce a chorioretinal adhesion, which could increase oxygen supply to the retina in the hope of preventing or down-regulating the vasoproliferative response.


Prevention of Diabetic Retinopathy

The Diabetes Control and Complications Trial and United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study were large randomized clinical trials that demonstrated the importance of tight glucose control with respect to reducing the incidence and progression of diabetes complications, including diabetic retinopathy for both type I and type II diabetes.

All individuals with diabetes should be aware of the importance of regular dilated retinal examinations. Early diagnosis and treatment of diabetic retinopathy can help prevent blindness in more than 90% of cases. In spite of treatment, however, individuals can sometimes still lose vision.



The patient, ophthalmologist or retina specialist, and internist or endocrinologist must work together as a team to optimize the diabetes control and help to reduce the risk of blindness.


Long-Term Monitoring

The frequency of follow-up care is dictated primarily by the baseline stage of the retinopathy and its rate of progression to proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). Only 5% of patients with mild nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) would progress to PDR in 1 year without follow-up care, and thus, monitoring these patients every 6-12 months is appropriate. As many as 27% of patients with moderate NPDR would progress to PDR in 1 year; therefore, they should be seen every 4 to 8 months.

More than 50% of patients with severe NPDR (preproliferative stage) would progress to PDR in a year without follow-up care and 75% would develop high-risk characteristics within 5 years; thus, follow-up care as frequently as every 2 to 3 months is mandated to ensure prompt recognition and treatment.

Any stage associated with clinically significant macular edema should be treated promptly with laser panretinal photocoagulation and observed closely (every 1-2 mo) to monitor the status of the macula and decrease the chance of severe visual loss.

Diabetes mellitus, in general, and diabetic retinopathy, in particular, are progressive conditions, and regular follow-up care with a physician is crucial for detection of any changes that may benefit from treatment.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Abdhish R Bhavsar, MD Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Minnesota Medical School; Director of Clinical Research, Retina Center, PA; Past Chair, Consulting Staff, Department of Ophthalmology, Phillips Eye Institute

Abdhish R Bhavsar, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Medical Association, American Society of Retina Specialists, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, Minnesota Medical Association

Disclosure: Received grant/research funds from Allergan; Received grant/research funds from genentech; Received grant/research funds from regeneron; Received grant/research funds from sirion for none; Received consulting fee from Eyetech for consulting; Received consulting fee from Allergan for consulting; Received consulting fee from regeneron for consulting; Received travel reimbursement from Allergan for consulting.


John H Drouilhet, MD, FACS Clinical Professor, Department of Surgery, Section of Ophthalmology, University of Hawaii, John A Burns School of Medicine

John H Drouilhet, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Neal H Atebara, MD Private Practice, Retina Center of Hawaii

Neal H Atebara, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Society of Retina Specialists, Retina Society, American Medical Association, Hawaii Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD Clinical Professor of Health Sciences, Department of Ophthalmology, Jules Stein Eye Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, American Glaucoma Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Steve Charles, MD Director of Charles Retina Institute; Clinical Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Tennessee College of Medicine

Steve Charles, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Society of Retina Specialists, Macula Society, Retina Society, Club Jules Gonin

Disclosure: Received royalty and consulting fees for: Alcon Laboratories.

Chief Editor

Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP Professor of Endocrinology, Director of Training Program, Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Strelitz Diabetes and Endocrine Disorders Institute, Department of Internal Medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School

Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, American College of Physicians, American Diabetes Association, Endocrine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

V Al Pakalnis, MD, PhD Professor of Ophthalmology, University of South Carolina School of Medicine; Chief of Ophthalmology, Dorn Veterans Affairs Medical Center

V Al Pakalnis, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, South Carolina Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The authors and editors of Medscape Reference gratefully acknowledge the contributions of previous author, Sherman O Valero, MD, to the development and writing of this article.

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Fundus photograph of early background diabetic retinopathy showing multiple microaneurysms.
Retinal findings in background diabetic retinopathy, including blot hemorrhages (long arrow), microaneurysms (short arrow), and hard exudates (arrowhead).
Fluorescein angiogram demonstrating an area of capillary nonperfusion (arrow).
Fluorescein angiogram demonstrating foveal dye leakage caused by macular edema.
Fundus photograph of clinically significant macular edema demonstrating retinal exudates within the fovea.
New vessel formation on the surface of the retina (neovascularization elsewhere)
An area of neovascularization that leaks fluorescein on angiography.
Boat-shaped preretinal hemorrhage associated with neovascularization elsewhere.
Fibrovascular proliferations within the vitreous cavity
Extensive fibrovascular proliferations within and around the optic disc
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