Retinal Detachment

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What is retinal detachment?

Retinal detachment occurs when the light-sensing layer inside your eye, the retina, detaches from the underlying pigmented tissue layer that provides it oxygen and nutrients. Retinal detachment can happen spontaneously with no obvious or underlying cause. However, retinal detachment is often associated with a common age-related change to the eye called posterior vitreous detachment. In posterior vitreous detachment, the gel-like material that fills the back of your eye begins to liquefy and pull away from the retina. As the vitreous pulls away, it can put traction on the retina.

In the most common scenario, vitreous traction can generate small holes and tears in the retina, providing a convenient pathway for the liquid vitreous to gain access behind the retina.
Retinal detachment is most common in people over age 40 and they occur more frequently in women. Previous detachment is a significant risk factor. Trauma to the face or head or an eye injury may cause retinal detachment. Diabetes and uveitis, an inflammatory disease of the inner eye, also contribute to the development of retinal detachment. Several other risk factors can predispose you to retinal detachment. These risk factors include extreme nearsightedness, a family history of retinal detachment, or a family history of genetic eye diseases.

Retinal detachment is painless. Symptoms of retinal detachment include blurred vision, bright flashes of light in the peripheral vision, or partial blindness. You may also experience a sudden increase in floaters, which appear as debris, cobweb-like lights, or specks of light in your field of vision.

Retinal detachment is a serious condition that can lead to blindness in the affected eye. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have serious symptoms such as sudden blurring of vision, bright flashes of light, sudden increase in floaters, and partial blindness.

What are the symptoms of retinal detachment?

Retinal detachment is painless. However, symptoms of retinal detachment affect your vision. You may experience a sudden blurring of vision or partial loss of vision. Characteristic symptoms of retinal detachment include flashing lights and a sudden increase of floaters in your vision. You may experience partial loss of vision. Patients describe it as a curtain coming down over their vision.

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Retinal detachment is a serious condition that can lead to blindness. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Flashing lights
  • Partial loss of vision
  • Sudden blurring of vision
  • Sudden increase in the number of floaters in your field of vision

What causes retinal detachment?

A detached retina separates from the structures at the back of the eye that provide the retina with oxygen, nutrients and support. Although the exact cause of retinal detachment is not known, it is often associated with a common age-related change called posterior vitreous detachment. In posterior vitreous detachment, the gel-like material that fills the back of your eye begins to congeal and pull away from the retina. As the vitreous pulls away, it can put traction on the retina. The blood vessel changes that occur in diabetes contribute to the development of retinal detachment, as do inflammatory conditions of the inner eye such as uveitis.

Causes of retinal detachment

The causes of retinal detachment include:

  • Age-induced posterior vitreous detachment
  • Bleeding in or under the retina
  • Extreme nearsightedness
  • Eye injury
  • Fluid accumulation beneath the retina (exudate, pus, etc.)
  • Trauma to the face or head

What are the risk factors for retinal detachment?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing retinal detachment. Not all people with risk factors will get retinal detachment. Risk factors for retinal detachment include:

  • Diabetes (a chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)

  • Extreme nearsightedness

  • Family history of retinal detachment

  • Inflammatory conditions of the inner eye

  • Previous retinal detachment repair

  • Previous surgery for cataracts

  • Retinal detachment in the other eye

  • Uveitis and iritis (inflammations of the structures of the eye)

Reducing your risk of retinal detachment

You may be able to lower your risk of retinal detachment by:

  • Consulting with your health care provider if you have risk factors. Yearly eye examinations are warranted for at-risk individuals.

  • Keeping your diabetes under control

  • Wearing protective eye wear

How is retinal detachment treated?

The treatment of retinal detachment begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. Retinal detachment is treated with several types of surgical procedures to reattach the retina. The type of detachment, its location, and the extent of the damage to the retina will determine the type of repair. Sometimes these procedures are combined. Vision loss may occur if the retina cannot be reattached.

Surgerical procedures used in the treatment of retinal detachment include:

  • Cryopexy uses the application of intense cold to form a scar that adheres the retina to its underlying layer

  • Laser surgery is used to close up holes or tears in the retina

  • Pneumatic retinopexy uses a gas bubble injected into the back of the eye to press the retina back into position and keep it in place. Silicone oil is sometimes used instead of gas.

  • Scleral buckle is used to indent the wall of the eye and bring the two layers of the retina back together

  • Vitrectomy is used to remove the fluid or scar tissue that is placing mechanical traction on the retina

What you can do to improve your retinal detachment

In addition to seeking immediate treatment and following your health care provider’s instructions, you can speed your recovery by:

  • Keeping your diabetes under control

  • Periodically checking the eyesight in each eye separately

  • Precisely following the postsurgical instructions your health care provider gives you

  • Wearing protective eye wear

What are the potential complications of retinal detachment?

Retinal detachment should be treated within 24 hours of the first symptoms. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of retinal detachment include loss of vision. Complications of retinal detachment include loss of vision or eyeball, abnormally high or low eye pressure, which may affect the health of the eye.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Retinal detachment. National Eye Institute. http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/retinaldetach/.
  2. Retinal detachment. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002022/.
  3. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
  4. D'Amico DJ. Clinical practice. Primary retinal detachment. N Engl J Med 2008; 359:2346.