Purpose: To describe the causes of and risk factors for persistent severe visual loss occurring in the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study (ETDRS).
Methods: The ETDRS was a randomized clinical trial investigating photocoagulation and aspirin in 3,711 persons with mild to severe nonproliferative or early proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Severe visual loss, defined as best-corrected visual acuity of less than 5/200 on at least two consecutive 4-month follow-up visits, developed in 257 eyes (219 persons). Of these 257 eyes, 149 (127 persons) did not recover to 5/200 or better at any visit (persistent severe visual loss). Ocular characteristics of these eyes were compared with those of eyes with severe visual loss that improved to 5/200 or better at any subsequent visit. Characteristics of patients with severe visual loss that did and did not improve and those without severe visual loss were also compared.
Results: Severe visual loss that persisted developed in 149 eyes of 127 persons. In order of decreasing frequency, reasons recorded for persistent visual loss included vitreous or preretinal hemorrhage, macular edema or macular pigmentary changes related to macular edema, macular or retinal detachment, and neovascular glaucoma. Compared with all patients without persistent severe visual loss, patients with persistent severe visual loss had higher mean levels of hemoglobin A1c (10.4% vs 9.7%; P = .001) and higher levels of cholesterol (244.1 vs 228.5 mg/dl; P = .0081) at baseline. Otherwise, patients with persistent severe visual loss were similar to patients with severe visual loss that improved and to those without severe visual loss.
Conclusions: Persistent severe visual loss was an infrequent occurrence in the ETDRS. Its leading cause was vitreous or preretinal hemorrhage, followed by macular edema or macular pigmentary changes related to macular edema and retinal detachment. The low frequency of persistent severe visual loss in the ETDRS is most likely related to the nearly universal intervention with scatter photocoagulation (either before or soon after high-risk proliferative diabetic retinopathy developed) and the intervention with vitreous surgery when clinically indicated.