Detached Retina: Symptoms and Treatment

A detached retina is a medical emergency that can lead to permanent vision loss if not immediately treated, so it is essential to recognize the symptoms and causes.

Extreme nearsightedness, family history, and recent cataract surgery are among the risk factors for a detached retina.

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Your retina is the light-sensitive layer of tissue that lines the inside of your eyes. Its job is to send visual messages through the optic nerve to the brain. A detached retina means it has been lifted or pulled from its normal position. Sometimes, small areas of the retina become torn or can break, which can lead to retinal detachment.

A detached retina is a medical emergency. The longer it goes untreated, the greater your risk of permanent vision loss in the affected eye.

Causes and Risk Factors

A retinal detachment is more common in people older than age 40, and affects men more than women. A person’s risk also increase if he or she has any of the following:

  • Extreme nearsightedness
  • A retinal detachment in the other eye
  • Other eye diseases or disorders, such as retinoschisis, uveitis, degenerative myopia, or lattice degeneration
  • A family history of retinal detachment
  • A recent cataract surgery
  • An eye injury
  • Advanced diabetes

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Types of Detached Retina

There are three types of retinal detachment:

  • Rhegmatogenous: The most common, this occurs when a tear or break in the retina allows fluid to get under the retina and separates it from the retinal pigment epithelium, or RPE.
  • Tractional: This less common type occurs when scar tissue on the retina’s surface contracts and causes the retina to separate from the RPE.
  • Exudative: Often caused by retinal diseases, this type includes inflammatory disorders and injury or trauma to the eye. Fluid leaks into the area underneath the retina, but there are no tears or breaks.

Symptoms of a Detached Retina

The appearance of floaters and/or an increase in their numbers, are the most common. Floaters resemble “cobwebs” or specks that float in your field of vision. Other symptoms may include sudden flashes of light and the appearance of a curtain over your field of vision.

Detached Retina: Treatment

Research has found that more than 90 percent  of retinal detachment cases can be treated. However, the visual outcome is not always predictable and depends much on the severity of your condition. Also, your vision may take several months to improve, and there is a chance it may never return to its previous normal level.

The type of treatment depends on whether you have a retinal tear or detachment. Here is a look at each.

Retinal Tear

When a retinal tear has not yet progressed to a detachment, you can often have an outpatient procedure. These include:

  • Laser surgery (photocoagulation). )  A laser beam makes burns around the tear, which creates scarring that attaches the retina to underlying tissue.
  • Freezing. Here, a probe freezes the outer surface of the eye around the tear’s hole. This creates a scar that helps secure the retina to the eye wall.

After your procedure, you should refrain from vigorous activity for at least two weeks.

Repairing a Detachment

If your retina has detached, doctors will also use surgical procedures to repair it. These may be done along with laser surgery or freezing. They include the following:

  • Air or gas. A bubble of air or gas is injected into the vitreous, the gel-like substance that fills the eyeball and helps maintain its round shape.  The bubble is then positioned against and around the retinal tear, which stops fluid from flowing into the area behind the retina. The retina can then reattach itself to the back wall of your eye. You may need to hold your head in a certain position for a few days to keep the bubble in place. Eventually, the bubble will be reabsorbed.
  • Indenting the eye’s surface. This involves sewing a piece of silicone rubber or sponge to the white of your eye over the affected area. The material indents the eye wall, which helps to relieve the force caused by the tugging on the retina.
  • Draining and replacing the fluid in the eye. In this procedure, the vitreous and any tissue that tugs on the retina is removed. Then either air, gas, or liquids are injected into the space to reattach the retina.

Originally posted in May 2016 and updated.

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