Retinal detachment occurs when the retina becomes separated from the nerve tissues and blood supply underneath it. While painless, visually this has a clouding effect that has been likened to a gray curtain moving across the field of vision.

Retinal detachment is a treatable condition, but it must be taken care of promptly, or it can cause vision loss and in the worst cases, blindness.

What Causes Retinal Detachment?

The retina is attached to the vitreous, the clear gel in the middle of our eye. As we age, the vitreous may shrink and sometimes during the process of the vitreous shrinking it may remain partially attached to the retina, and tug on it. The resulting movement of the retina’s nerve cells can cause eye flashes. Normally, this doesn't cause any issues but in some cases, it can tug enough to tear the retina allowing eye fluid to enter it. As fluid gets in, it pushes the retina away from the supportive tissue underneath it, causing separation, and eventually, detachment.

Retinal detachment can also be caused by injury from blunt trauma and certain eye conditions such as advanced diabetic eye disease and severe nearsightedness.

The detached portion of the retina is no longer able to properly transmit light signals to the brain.  Vision can also be disrupted by retinal blood vessels that leak fluid into the inner portion of the eye where vitreous, or gel-like like fluid would normally be. If the retinal detachment progresses into the macula, or central part of the retina, the impact on vision can become more severe.

Symptoms of Retinal Detachment

An eye care professional can determine retinal detachment through a number of retinal and pupil response tests, ranging from simple visual acuity testing to an ultrasound of the eye.

For the patient, the gray curtain mentioned above occurs after retinal detachment has already begun. Before this happens, there are signs and symptoms that can alert one to the possible onset of retinal detachment, including:

  • Increase in number and size of eye floaters
  • Floaters with flashes
  • Shadow(s) in peripheral vision
  • Appearance of grey curtain over part of your vision
  • Sudden decrease in vision

Treatment for Retinal Detachment

Surgery has proven a highly successful treatment for retinal detachment, provided the condition has been detected early enough. To ensure that treatment can be effective, anyone experiencing the symptoms above should be given medical attention within 24 hours.

Typical surgical procedures include:

  • Laser surgery: Repairs tears in the retina that are the underlying cause of separation
  • Cryopexy: Applies intense cold to the underlying tissue, causing a scar to develop that holds the retina in place
  • Pneumatic retinoplexy: a tiny gas bubble is placed in the eye that floats the retina back into place; usually accompanied by laser surgery to ensure the retina stays in correct position permanently.
  • Scleral buckle: suturing a silicone “buckle” to the eye that indents the wall of the eye into a position that allows the retina to reattach.

Photo above courtesy of National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health.

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