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Diabetic Retinopathy: Laser Treatment

Diabetes harms blood vessels in the retina. The retina is in the rear of the eye. This damage can cause vision loss or even blindness. This is called diabetic retinopathy. Laser photocoagulation may help slow or stop this disease. But laser treatment can't always be used for diabetic retinopathy. Sometimes you may need eye surgery or eye shots (injections).

What is laser photocoagulation?

This treatment uses a high-energy light source called a laser. The laser stops new blood vessels from growing in the eye. The laser is aimed at the retina. The heat from the laser causes scarring. The scarring limits the growth of new blood vessels. Lasers may also stop inflammation. This helps your eye heal and helps the eye absorb extra fluid. Sometimes laser treatment is combined with medicine. This may include shots of steroids or medicines that stop blood vessels from growing.

Side view of eye showing lens on front of eye. Laser light is focusing on inside back wall of eye.

Types of laser treatment

The treatment you get depends on how much damage there is and where it is. Treatment may take from a few minutes to about half an hour. You may need more than one session or type of treatment. These include:

  • Pan-retinal treatment. This reduces growth of new blood vessels in the retina.

  • Grid treatment. This treats swelling in the macula. The macula is a spot in the middle of the retina that helps you see clearly.

  • Focal treatment. This seals up small areas of leakage in the retina.

Getting ready for laser treatment

  • Tell your healthcare provider about all medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements you take. This includes aspirin, ibuprofen, ginkgo, and warfarin and other blood thinners.

  • Have an adult family member or friend drive you home after treatment.

  • Bring dark sunglasses to wear on the way home.

  • Sign your consent. You will be asked to sign a consent form that says you understand the risks of this procedure.

  • Have all your questions answered before you sign.

During laser treatment

Laser treatment may be done at the healthcare provider’s office, hospital, or eye center.

  • You’ll be awake during the treatment.

  • The healthcare provider first widens (dilates) your pupil with eye drops. Then drops are placed to numb the surface of the eye.

  • He or she then places a special contact lens on your eye to help focus the laser on the retina.

  • You will be asked to stare at a light with your other eye. This is so your eyes don't move during the laser treatment.

  • The special contact lens is removed once the laser treatment is done.

After laser treatment

  • You may get an eye patch to wear. You may wear it for just a few hours, or a few days.

  • You may be told to use eye drops.

  • You often don't need to stop taking blood thinners. But if you were told to do so, ask your healthcare provider when you can start taking them again. 

  • Ask your healthcare provider when you can lift objects, exercise, and swim again. Also ask when you can drive and return to work.

  • Ask for a number to call if you have problems or questions once you get home.

  • You should also get written discharge instructions. Ask the provider to print them in large print if you have low vision.

Controlling pain

Laser treatment rarely causes pain. You’ll be given medicine to treat eye irritation, if it occurs. Call your healthcare provider if you have a lot of eye pain or discomfort.

Risks and possible complications of laser treatment

Laser treatment risks and complications include: 

  • Eye irritation

  • Bleeding in the retina

  • Retinal detachment

  • Scratched cornea

  • Watery eyes

  • Dilated pupils

  • Mild headache

  • Double, blurry, or decreased vision

  • Seeing spots

  • Glaring

  • Loss of night or side (peripheral) vision

  • Laser therapy doesn't work and vision is lost

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have sudden pain or vision problems after laser treatment surgery.

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Robert Hurd MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2019
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