Laser photocoagulation for proliferative diabetic retinopathy

Review question

Is laser photocoagulation an effective treatment for diabetic retinopathy?


Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a common problem for people with diabetes and can lead to loss of vision. The back of the eye (retina) can develop problems because of diabetes, including the growth of harmful new blood vessels (proliferative DR, referred to here as 'PDR'). Laser photocoagulation is a commonly used treatment for DR in which the eye doctor uses a laser on the back of the eye to stop some of the harmful changes.

Study characteristics

We found five studies. The searches were done in April 2014. Three studies were done in the USA, one study in the UK and one study in Japan. A total of 4786 people (9503 eyes) were included in these studies. Most participants had PDR.

Key results

We found that moderate vision loss at 12 months was similar in eyes treated with laser and eyes that were not treated, but similar assessments made at a later date showed that eyes treated with laser were less likely to have suffered moderate vision loss. Treatment with laser reduced the risk of severe visual loss by over 50% at 12 months. There was a similar effect on the progression of DR. None of the studies reported patient-relevant outcomes such as pain or loss of driving licence.

Quality of the evidence

We did not find very many studies and those we found were done quite a long time ago when standards of trial conduct and reporting were lower. We judged the quality of the evidence to be low, with the exception of the results for severe visual loss, which we judged to be moderate quality evidence.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review provides evidence that laser photocoagulation is beneficial in treating proliferative diabetic retinopathy. We judged the evidence to be moderate or low, depending on the outcome. This is partly related to reporting of trials conducted many years ago, after which panretinal photocoagulation has become the mainstay of treatment of proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

Future Cochrane Reviews on variations in the laser treatment protocol are planned. Future research on laser photocoagulation should investigate the combination of laser photocoagulation with newer treatments such as anti-vascular endothelial growth factors (anti-VEGFs).

Read the full abstract...

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes in which high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels in the retina. Sometimes new blood vessels grow in the retina, and these can have harmful effects; this is known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Laser photocoagulation is an intervention that is commonly used to treat diabetic retinopathy, in which light energy is applied to the retina with the aim of stopping the growth and development of new blood vessels, and thereby preserving vision.


To assess the effects of laser photocoagulation for diabetic retinopathy compared to no treatment or deferred treatment.

Search strategy: 

We searched CENTRAL (which contains the Cochrane Eyes and Vision Group Trials Register) (2014, Issue 5), Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid MEDLINE In-Process and Other Non-Indexed Citations, Ovid MEDLINE Daily, Ovid OLDMEDLINE (January 1946 to June 2014), EMBASE (January 1980 to June 2014), the metaRegister of Controlled Trials (mRCT) (, ( and the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) ( We did not use any date or language restrictions in the electronic searches for trials. We last searched the electronic databases on 3 June 2014.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) where people (or eyes) with diabetic retinopathy were randomly allocated to laser photocoagulation or no treatment or deferred treatment. We excluded trials of lasers that are no longer in routine use. Our primary outcome was the proportion of people who lost 15 or more letters (3 lines) of best-corrected visual acuity (BCVA) as measured on a logMAR chart at 12 months. We also looked at longer-term follow-up of the primary outcome at two to five years. Secondary outcomes included mean best corrected distance visual acuity, severe visual loss, mean near visual acuity, progression of diabetic retinopathy, quality of life, pain, loss of driving licence, vitreous haemorrhage and retinal detachment.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used standard methods as expected by the Cochrane Collaboration. Two review authors selected studies and extracted data.

Main results: 

We identified a large number of trials of laser photocoagulation of diabetic retinopathy (n = 83) but only five of these studies were eligible for inclusion in the review, i.e. they compared laser photocoagulation with currently available lasers to no (or deferred) treatment. Three studies were conducted in the USA, one study in the UK and one study in Japan. A total of 4786 people (9503 eyes) were included in these studies. The majority of participants in four of these trials were people with proliferative diabetic retinopathy; one trial recruited mainly people with non-proliferative retinopathy. Four of the studies evaluated panretinal photocoagulation with argon laser and one study investigated selective photocoagulation of non-perfusion areas. Three studies compared laser treatment to no treatment and two studies compared laser treatment to deferred laser treatment. All studies were at risk of performance bias because the treatment and control were different and no study attempted to produce a sham treatment. Three studies were considered to be at risk of attrition bias.

At 12 months there was little difference between eyes that received laser photocoagulation and those allocated to no treatment (or deferred treatment), in terms of loss of 15 or more letters of visual acuity (risk ratio (RR) 0.99, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.89 to 1.11; 8926 eyes; 2 RCTs, low quality evidence). Longer term follow-up did not show a consistent pattern, but one study found a 20% reduction in risk of loss of 15 or more letters of visual acuity at five years with laser treatment. Treatment with laser reduced the risk of severe visual loss by over 50% at 12 months (RR 0.46, 95% CI 0.24 to 0.86; 9276 eyes; 4 RCTs, moderate quality evidence). There was a beneficial effect on progression of diabetic retinopathy with treated eyes experiencing a 50% reduction in risk of progression of diabetic retinopathy (RR 0.49, 95% CI 0.37 to 0.64; 8331 eyes; 4 RCTs, low quality evidence) and a similar reduction in risk of vitreous haemorrhage (RR 0.56, 95% CI 0.37 to 0.85; 224 eyes; 2 RCTs, low quality evidence).

None of the studies reported near visual acuity or patient-relevant outcomes such as quality of life, pain, loss of driving licence or adverse effects such as retinal detachment.

We did not plan any subgroup analyses, but there was a difference in baseline risk in participants with non-proliferative retinopathy compared to those with proliferative retinopathy. With the small number of included studies we could not do a formal subgroup analysis comparing effect in proliferative and non-proliferative retinopathy.