Retinal Tear: A Complete Guide

Medically Reviewed By Leela Raju, MD

A retinal tear is a hole or rip in your retina, the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of your eye. Symptoms include seeing flashing lights, floaters, or shadows in your side vision. A retinal tear is a medical emergency because it can lead to retinal detachment and vision loss. If you notice any sudden or concerning vision symptoms, talk with an eye doctor as soon as possible.

Early diagnosis and treatment of retinal tears can help protect your vision and lead to a positive outcome.

This article discusses retinal tears, including their symptoms, causes, treatment, and outlook.

Symptoms of a retinal tear

Someone holds a blurry pane of glass in front of their face.
Jovana Vukotic/Stocksy United

Retinal tear symptoms can include:

  • sudden onset of black spots or floaters (drifting spots or specks) in your vision
  • flashes of light in your vision
  • blurry vision
  • a shadow over your peripheral or side vision, as if curtains are closing in or covering your vision
  • darker or dim vision

However, retinal tears sometimes do not cause any symptoms.

Causes of retinal tears

Your eye is filled in with a clear, gel-like fluid called vitreous, which is attached to your retina at birth. As you age, the vitreous gradually thins out to separate from your retina. Typically, this separation happens without any problems.

However, in some people, the vitreous pulls the retina with it and creates a tear while separating. This can cause fluid to leak through the tear, leading to retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is when the retina pulls away completely. It is a medical emergency.

In most cases, retinal tears develop randomly, although an eye injury can increase the risk.

Risk factors for retinal tears

You may have a higher risk of developing a retinal tear if you:

  • are older
  • are nearsighted
  • have had a serious eye injury in the past
  • have previously had eye surgery
  • have experienced a retinal tear or detachment in your other eye
  • have a family history of retinal detachment
  • take certain medications for glaucoma or age-related blurry vision, such as pilocarpine (Salagen, Isopto Carpine, Pilocar)
  • have other eye conditions Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source , such as:
    • nearsightedness (myopia)
    • retinoschisis (separation of your retina into two layers)
    • diabetic retinopathy
    • lattice degeneration (weak areas in your retina)

However, the American Society of Retina Specialists (ASRS) notes that there’s no way to predict when a retinal tear will happen or who may have one.

When to contact a doctor

Contact an eye doctor as soon as possible if you experience any retinal tear symptoms or other vision changes.

Without treatment, retinal tears can lead to severe complications and vision loss. But early diagnosis can lead to very positive outcomes.

Not all retinal tears cause noticeable symptoms. Therefore, regular eye checkups are essential for protecting your vision.

Talk with a doctor about how often you should get a comprehensive eye exam, as this can vary for each person.

The National Eye Institute (NEI) provides a list of resources Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source for finding low cost or free eye care if needed.

Diagnosing a retinal tear

To help diagnose a retinal tear and rule out other conditions, an eye doctor will likely ask about your:

  • symptoms
  • medical history
  • family medical history

They may then perform one or more eye exams, such as:

  • Dilated eye exam: An eye doctor will place dilating eye drops into your eye and use a lens to see into your eye.
  • Scleral depression: A doctor will apply very gentle pressure to your eye. This presses on the vitreous, allowing them to see the retina at different angles.
  • Imaging scans: Eye doctors can use imaging scans, such as ultrasound and optical coherence tomography, to see your retina’s exact position.

Treatment for retinal tears

Treatment options for a retinal tear can vary, depending on the tear’s severity and other personal factors.

Some mild or low risk tears do not require immediate treatment. Some retinal tears improve on their own by sealing around the rip. While you recover, doctors may instead recommend regular checkups to monitor your eye health.

Below are some retinal tear treatment options.

Cryopexy (freeze therapy)

During cryopexy, doctors use a small tool called a freezing probe to apply extreme cold to the tear. This causes a scar to form around the tear, helping to seal it into place.

To avoid pain or discomfort, you’ll receive a topical or local anesthetic, such as a numbing cream. However, you may feel pressure or coldness during the procedure.

Learn more about cryopexy, including its preparation, recovery, and effectiveness.

Laser surgery

With a technique called photocoagulation, eye doctors can use a laser to seal your retina to your eye’s wall. The aim is to prevent fluid from passing through the tear and causing retinal detachment.

Laser surgery may take as little as 15 minutes and can be performed in an eye doctor’s usual office.

Outlook for retinal tears

Experts, including the NEI Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source and the ASRS, note that the outlook for retinal tears can be very positive with prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Some people may need a second treatment or surgery. But eventually, treatment is effective for about 9 in 10 people with retinal tears.

However, without prompt treatment, retinal tears can lead to severe effects such as retinal detachment and vision loss.

Also, while retinal tear procedures are generally safe, they do come with a risk of complications such as:

For the best outcome, contact an eye doctor immediately if you notice any retinal tear symptoms or other vision problems.

Also talk with a doctor if you have any questions about retinal tears, eye health, or your outlook.

Preventing a retinal tear

In most cases, retinal tears are not preventable since they cannot be predicted.

However, regular eye checkups can help reduce the risk of serious damage and vision loss. Checkups will help an eye doctor spot a retinal tear or another eye problem, even if you don’t experience any symptoms.


A retinal tear happens when your eye’s vitreous fluid pulls on your retina and causes a rip. This is a medical emergency because a tear can lead to vision loss if it’s not treated quickly.

Symptoms of a retinal tear include sudden floaters or black spots in your vision, blurry vision, or problems with your peripheral vision. However, some people don’t experience any symptoms at first.

Treatment with monitoring, laser therapy, or freeze therapy can be very effective.

Contact an eye doctor immediately if you experience any retinal tear symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Leela Raju, MD
Last Review Date: 2024 Jun 26
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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.