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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Retinopathy means that disease has damaged the retina. The retina is the part inside the eye that senses light. Different diseases can cause retinopathy. There can be partial or complete loss of vision. Retinopathy can develop slowly or suddenly, can get better on its own or lead to permanent damage.

The retina contains many blood vessels. Abnormalities in these vessels are a major cause of retinopathy.

There are several types of retinopathy, including:

  • Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). ROP occurs in some infants who are born prematurely or at a low birth weight. When a child is born too early, retinal blood vessels do not have time to finish growing properly. In the early stages of ROP, there are only subtle changes and no obvious symptoms. In more advanced stages, the retina can become detached, causing blindness.

  • Diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy develops in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. It takes years to develop. Two kinds of diabetic retinopathy have the potential to diminish vision:

    • In nonproliferative retinopathy, blood vessels in the retina deteriorate. Deteriorating blood vessels can become blocked or deformed. Fluids, fats and proteins leak out of the abnormal blood vessels. Fluid can collect in the retina. This swelling impairs sharp vision.

    • In proliferative retinopathy, new, structurally unstable blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. These unstable blood vessels cause frequent minor bleeding. The bleeding causes local irritation and scarring.

      Proliferative retinopathy can cause retinal detachment. This is a separation of the layers of the retina. It is one of the most serious consequences of proliferative retinopathy.

      The vitreous is the clear gel between the lens and the retina. Sudden bleeding into the vitreous can obscure vision, often quite suddenly.

  • Hypertensive retinopathy. Hypertensive retinopathy occurs in people who have high blood pressure. High blood pressure causes blood vessel abnormalities. Abnormalities may include thickening of the small arteries, blockages of retinal blood vessels and bleeding from them. Sudden, severe high blood pressure may cause swelling of the optic nerve.

    People with this disease frequently have no symptoms in the early stages. It may be discovered during a routine eye exam.

  • Central serous retinopathy. Central serous retinopathy begins for reasons that are not well understood. In this condition, fluid accumulates in the membrane behind the retina. The fluid seeps in between layers of the retina and causes them to separate. This results in blurred vision or poor night vision.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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