Retinopathy and Sickle Cell Disease


p7When I was about 14 years old, I began experiencing intermittent pain in my left eye. An ophthalmologist appointment was scheduled for me, and it was discovered that I had retinopathy. The doctors discussed it among themselves excitedly, a little salmon colored patch in the back of my eye. But I had no idea what retinopathy was, or why it was causing me pain. So what is retinopathy?

Sickle Cell Retinopathy is damage to the retina in the eyes. It occurs when red blood cells get stuck in blood vessels in the retina, which causes the tissue to become ischemic.

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When sickle red blood cells get trapped in the small blood vessels in the retina, the trapped cells can cause:

–       A decrease in blood flow, which leads to potentially permanent damage of the retina.

–       Bleeding in the eye, which happens when the eye makes new blood vessels, to make up for the blocked vessels. These new vessels are thinner and weaker than the originals, and thus break open and bleed. The bleeding leads to damage of the retina and may cause the retina to detach.

When the retina becomes damaged, changes in eyesight may occur. This damage may lead to blindness if it is not treated.

Sickle Cell Retinopathy may not show any symptoms at first. However, when it becomes worse, these problems may occur:

–       Dark shadows and flashes, which are called floaters, may be seen in some parts of the vision.

–       Blurry vision

–       A sudden loss of vision

–       Pain in the eyes

If any of these symptoms are experienced, it is important to see a doctor right away. If necessary, head straight to the emergency room. The sooner the symptoms are treated, the better the chances of saving one’s vision. The doctor must be immediately made aware that the person with the symptoms has Sickle Cell, in order for treatment to be as comprehensive as possible. An eye exam will be conducted, which will include the usage of drops, which will allow the doctor to see what is going on in the eye. Treatment for Sickle Cell Retinopathy may include a laser treatment, or surgery.

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As always with Sickle Cell, one of the main things a person can do stay healthy, and maintain good eye health, is to drink plenty of water. It is incredibly important to stay hydrated with H20, as a great percentage of the blood is made up of water, and a higher intake of water helps the cells to move along more easily without becoming stuck to each other. Another thing to do is to always make sure to consume a healthy diet. Or, as we like to say it here at Sickle Cell Warriors, “Eat well with Sickle Cell.” A diet abundant in fruits and vegetables, with limited amounts of sweets and processed foods, is a diet that can allow the body a greater amount of nutrients at its disposal, which it can use to stay healthy.

Whether or not one has experienced eye pain with Sickle Cell, it is important to schedule regular visits with the ophthalmologist, to ensure that the eyes are healthy and in proper working order, and that they remain that way. If the eye doctor advises any treatments, it is important to follow them just as they are given. It is also essential to schedule regular visits with one’s regular doctor.

My retinopathy has been treated with laser, and I continue to visit the eye doctor regularly for treatment. As my eye doctor explained to me, the laser helps to stop the damage that occurs to my eyes from the sickle blockages, and the newer, weaker blood vessels that are formed in my eyes. I make sure to drink plenty of water everyday, and I increase my intake if I have any eye pain.

Retinopathy may be one of the many complications of Sickle Cell, but it is also treatable. If one stays aware of what is going on with one’s body, and follows up regularly with a doctor, as well as takes great care of oneself, the effects of retinopathy can be diminished. The three most important things to do are to: schedule regular doctor visits, drink plenty of water everyday, and see a doctor or go to the ER at the first signs of eye pain. Keeping all these things in mind may help to someday save someone’s vision.


  1. Thank you for this straight forward and informative article. i currently have first three of the symptoms highlighted above in my left eye and it has been scary. i am a SC genotype and asides the vaso occlusive crisis and constant anaemia, i havent had any other sickle cell issues so when this was diagnosed as an underlying complication of sickle cell, i was very worried. it feels comforting to read from someone who has undergone same. Thank you.


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