Retinal detachment describes an emergency situation in which a thin layer of tissue (the retina) at the back of the eye pulls away from its normal position.
Retinal detachment separates the retinal cells from the layer of blood vessels that provides oxygen and nourishment to the eye. The longer retinal detachment goes untreated, the greater your risk of permanent vision loss in the affected eye.
Warning signs of retinal detachment may include one or all of the following: reduced vision and the sudden appearance of floaters and flashes of light. Contacting an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) right away can help save your vision.
Retinal detachment itself is painless. But warning signs almost always appear before it occurs or has advanced, such as:
- The sudden appearance of many floaters — tiny specks that seem to drift through your field of vision
- Flashes of light in one or both eyes (photopsia)
- Blurred vision
- Gradually reduced side (peripheral) vision
- A curtain-like shadow over your field of vision
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing the signs or symptoms of retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is a medical emergency in which you can permanently lose your vision.
There are three different types of retinal detachment:
Rhegmatogenous (reg-ma-TODGE-uh-nus). These types of retinal detachments are the most common. Rhegmatogenous detachments are caused by a hole or tear in the retina that allows fluid to pass through and collect underneath the retina. This fluid builds up and causes the retina to pull away from underlying tissues. The areas where the retina detaches lose their blood supply and stop working, causing you to lose vision.
The most common cause of rhegmatogenous detachment is aging. As you age, the gel-like material that fills the inside of your eye, known as the vitreous (VIT-ree-us), may change in consistency and shrink or become more liquid. Normally, the vitreous separates from the surface of the retina without any complications — a common condition called posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). One complication of this separation is a tear.
As the vitreous separates or peels off the retina, it may tug on the retina with enough force to create a retinal tear. Left untreated, the liquid vitreous can pass through the tear into the space behind the retina, causing the retina to become detached.
- Tractional. This type of detachment can occur when scar tissue grows on the retina's surface, causing the retina to pull away from the back of the eye. Tractional detachment is typically seen in people who have poorly controlled diabetes or other conditions.
- Exudative. In this type of detachment, fluid accumulates beneath the retina, but there are no holes or tears in the retina. Exudative detachment can be caused by age-related macular degeneration, injury to the eye, tumors or inflammatory disorders.
The following factors increase your risk of retinal detachment:
- Aging — retinal detachment is more common in people over age 50
- Previous retinal detachment in one eye
- Family history of retinal detachment
- Extreme nearsightedness (myopia)
- Previous eye surgery, such as cataract removal
- Previous severe eye injury
- Previous other eye disease or disorder, including retinoschisis, uveitis or thinning of the peripheral retina (lattice degeneration)
Your doctor may use the following tests, instruments and procedures to diagnose retinal detachment:
- Retinal examination. The doctor may use an instrument with a bright light and special lenses to examine the back of your eye, including the retina. This type of device provides a highly detailed view of your whole eye, allowing the doctor to see any retinal holes, tears or detachments.
- Ultrasound imaging. Your doctor may use this test if bleeding has occurred in the eye, making it difficult to see your retina.
Your doctor will likely examine both eyes even if you have symptoms in just one. If a tear is not identified at this visit, your doctor may ask you to return within a few weeks to confirm that your eye has not developed a delayed tear as a result of the same vitreous separation. Also, if you experience new symptoms, it's important to return to your doctor right away.
Surgery is almost always used to repair a retinal tear, hole or detachment. Various techniques are available. Ask your ophthalmologist about the risks and benefits of your treatment options. Together you can determine what procedure or combination of procedures is best for you.
When a retinal tear or hole hasn't yet progressed to detachment, your eye surgeon may suggest one of the following procedures to prevent retinal detachment and preserve vision.
- Laser surgery (photocoagulation). The surgeon directs a laser beam into the eye through the pupil. The laser makes burns around the retinal tear, creating scarring that usually "welds" the retina to underlying tissue.
- Freezing (cryopexy). After giving you a local anesthetic to numb your eye, the surgeon applies a freezing probe to the outer surface of the eye directly over the tear. The freezing causes a scar that helps secure the retina to the eye wall.
Both of these procedures are done on an outpatient basis. After your procedure, you'll likely be advised to avoid activities that might jar the eyes — such as running — for a couple of weeks or so.
If your retina has detached, you'll need surgery to repair it, preferably within days of a diagnosis. The type of surgery your surgeon recommends will depend on several factors, including how severe the detachment is.
Injecting air or gas into your eye. In this procedure, called pneumatic retinopexy (RET-ih-no-pek-see), the surgeon injects a bubble of air or gas into the center part of the eye (the vitreous cavity). If positioned properly, the bubble pushes the area of the retina containing the hole or holes against the wall of the eye, stopping the flow of fluid into the space behind the retina. Your doctor also uses cryopexy during the procedure to repair the retinal break.
Fluid that had collected under the retina is absorbed by itself, and the retina can then adhere to the wall of your eye. You may need to hold your head in a certain position for up to several days to keep the bubble in the proper position. The bubble eventually will reabsorb on its own.
Indenting the surface of your eye. This procedure, called scleral (SKLAIR-ul) buckling, involves the surgeon sewing (suturing) a piece of silicone material to the white of your eye (sclera) over the affected area. This procedure indents the wall of the eye and relieves some of the force caused by the vitreous tugging on the retina.
If you have several tears or holes or an extensive detachment, your surgeon may create a scleral buckle that encircles your entire eye like a belt. The buckle is placed in a way that doesn't block your vision, and it usually remains in place permanently.
Draining and replacing the fluid in the eye. In this procedure, called vitrectomy (vih-TREK-tuh-me), the surgeon removes the vitreous along with any tissue that is tugging on the retina. Air, gas or silicone oil is then injected into the vitreous space to help flatten the retina.
Eventually the air, gas or liquid will be absorbed, and the vitreous space will refill with body fluid. If silicone oil was used, it may be surgically removed months later.
Vitrectomy may be combined with a scleral buckling procedure.
After surgery your vision may take several months to improve. You may need a second surgery for successful treatment. Some people never recover all of their lost vision.
Coping and support
Retinal detachment may cause you to lose vision. Depending on your degree of vision loss, your lifestyle might change significantly.
You may find the following ideas useful as you learn to live with impaired vision:
- Get glasses. Optimize the vision you have with glasses that are specifically tailored for your eyes. Request safety lenses to protect your better-seeing eye.
- Brighten your home. Have proper light in your home for reading and other activities.
- Make your home safer. Eliminate throw rugs and place colored tape on the edges of steps. Consider installing motion-activated lights.
- Enlist the help of others. Tell friends and family members about your vision problems so they can help you.
- Get help from technology. Digital talking books and computer screen readers can help with reading, and other new technology continues to advance.
- Check into transportation. Investigate vans and shuttles, volunteer driving networks, or ride shares available in your area for people with impaired vision.
- Talk to others with impaired vision. Take advantage of online networks, support groups and resources for people with impaired vision.
Preparing for an appointment
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, ask if you need to do anything in advance.
- List any symptoms you're experiencing, including those that seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- List key personal information, including major stresses and recent life changes.
- List all medications, vitamins and supplements that you're taking, including doses.
- Ask a family member or friend to come with you. You may wish to ask someone who could drive you home if your eyes are dilated as a part of your exam. Or this person could write down information from your doctor or other clinic staff during the appointment.
- List questions to ask your doctor.
For retinal detachment, some basic questions include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- What are other possible causes of my symptoms?
- What tests do I need? Do they require any special preparation?
- Is my condition likely temporary or ongoing?
- What are my treatment options, and which do you recommend?
- What are the alternatives to the first approach that you're suggesting?
- I have another medical condition. How can I best manage them together?
- Do I need to restrict my activities in any way?
- Do I need to see another specialist?
- Do you have any brochures or other printed material I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
- What will determine whether I should plan for a follow-up visit?
- If I need surgery, how long will recovery take?
- Will I be able to travel after surgery? Will it be safe to travel by plane?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- When did you first start having symptoms?
- Do you have your symptoms all the time, or do they come and go?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- Have you had any symptoms in your other eye?
- Have you ever had an eye injury?
- Have you ever experienced eye inflammation?
- Have you ever had eye surgery?
- Do you have any other medical conditions, such as diabetes?
- Have any of your family members ever had a retinal detachment?