woman eye exam
woman eye exam

Retinal Detachment

Retinal detachment occurs when the retina, a layer of tissue in the back of the eye, becomes separated from its normal position. While painless, retinal detachment is a medical emergency that can cause vision loss if left untreated. 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. If you notice symptoms, seek medical care immediately, as early intervention and treatment is highly effective.

There are many causes of retinal detachment but the most common are aging or an eye injury. 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 become only 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 eye trauma and certain eye conditions such as advanced diabetic eye disease and severe nearsightedness.

An eye doctor 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.

Signs of Retinal Detachment

A detached retina must be examined by an ophthalmologist right away. Otherwise, you could lose vision in that eye. Seek immediate medical care if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Increase in number and size of eye floaters (small dark spots or squiggly lines that float across your vision)
  • Flashes of light in one or both eyes
  • A shadow or “curtain” on the sides or in the middle of your field of 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 retinopexy: 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 the 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

Am I at Risk for Retinal Detachment?

Anyone can have retinal detachment but some people are at a higher risk than others. You may be at a higher risk if:

  • You or a family member has had retinal detachment before
  • You’ve experienced a serious eye injury
  • You’ve had eye surgery (to treat cataracts, for example)

Other problems with your eyes may also put you at higher risk. These include:

  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Extreme nearsightedness
  • Posterior vitreous detachment
  • Certain other eye diseases such as retinoschisis or lattice degeneration

If you’re concerned about you or a loved one’s risk of retinal detachment, speak to your eye doctor.