Diabetic retinopathy laser surgery is an in-office treatment that involves making tiny burns in the eye with a beam of light. While it does not correct vision loss that has already occurred, it can prevent further vision deterioration.

Each treatment session takes 20–40 minutes, and several visits may be necessary. After each session, a person may experience discomfort, blurred vision, and increased sensitivity to light.

Diabetic retinopathy affects approximately one in three people with diabetes aged 40 years and older. Nearly 8 million Americans have the condition, which is one of the leading causes of blindness and low vision.

Keep reading to learn more about diabetic retinopathy laser surgery, including what to expect, aftercare, recovery, and possible complications.

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Before discussing laser surgery, a person needs to consider the effects of the condition on the retina.

The retina is a structure in the back of the eye that turns light into signals, which the brain interprets as images.

When a person’s blood sugar stays high, over time, it can harm the blood vessels in the retina and lead to diabetic retinopathy.

In the early stage — known as nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy — blood vessels in the retina can weaken and leak, causing swelling.

As the condition progresses, it can lead to the closing off of some blood vessels. This action prompts new blood vessels to grow and multiply, or proliferate, on the retina. At this point, which doctors call proliferative diabetic retinopathy, the condition can cause serious vision problems.

Laser treatment, known as photocoagulation, cannot reverse vision loss that has already occurred, but it can prevent a person’s vision from worsening. It involves making tiny burns within the eye with a beam of light. This makes the blood vessels shrink and stop leaking, reducing swelling. This technique also stops the formation of new blood vessel growth.

Laser treatment is a procedure rather than an operation. Unlike surgery, it does not require general anesthesia — medications that put someone in an unconscious state — or making an incision.

A person may receive the treatment in their eye doctor’s office. They will be awake and seated with their chin in a strap.

First, a doctor will put numbing drops in the eye. The next step entails aiming a laser into the eye with a special lens. During the procedure, an individual may see flashes of light, and their eye may feel uncomfortable and sting.

Typically, the procedure takes 20–40 minutes.

A person may require several sessions of laser treatment. However, once the treatment produces the full effect, it is permanent. Further treatments may be unnecessary if people can manage blood sugar levels well.

Side effects of diabetic retinopathy are often minor but may include:

  • Discomfort: The discomfort a person feels during the treatment may linger for a while, but taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help.
  • Blurred vision: An individual will need someone to drive them home.
  • Increased sensitivity to light: Wearing sunglasses until the eyes adjust may help.


Discomfort and sensitivity to light may last several hours, while the blurred vision may last several days.

Potential complications include:

  • seeing floaters, or spots floating in the eye
  • seeing the pattern of the laser in the back of the eye — an effect that may last several months
  • experiencing reduced night or peripheral vision, which may make it necessary for someone to stop driving
  • bleeding into the eye
  • having a permanent, small blind spot in the center of the eye

As the laser treatment will not correct vision loss that is already present, an individual may wish to find a low vision rehabilitation clinic to explore their options.

Eye professionals may recommend the below measures:

  • eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • medications
  • surgery

If such measures cannot correct vision loss, special devices, and training may enable someone to make the most of their remaining vision.

The best means of prevention involves managing diabetes, which involves keeping blood sugar within optimal ranges. To manage blood sugar, doctors advise:

  • eating a nutritious diet
  • engaging in regular exercise
  • following instructions in taking insulin and other diabetes medications
  • managing any coexisting conditions, for example, high blood pressure or cholesterol

Learn more about how to manage diabetes.

Diabetic retinopathy laser surgery is an in-office treatment rather than an operation. Instead of using general anesthesia and an incision, as in most surgeries, it involves numbing drops and making tiny burns in the eye with beams of light.

The treatment makes blood vessels shrink and stop leaking. This reduces swelling and protects against further vision loss.

After the treatment, it may take several days for the side effects to completely disappear. However, complications, such as bleeding into the eye and seeing floaters, are possible.

If an individual has vision loss before the treatment, they may benefit from going to a low vision rehabilitation clinic.