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What is retinal detachment, can it cause blindness?
Medically reviewed by Alastair Lockwood on 19 January 2021
The back of your eye contains a thin lining called the retina, which sends the signals to your brain that allow you to see. However, in some instances, the retina will suddenly pull away from the blood vessels that supply it with its nutrients and oxygen. This is commonly known as retinal detachment which can cause blindness.
What is a detached retina?
A detached retina is one of the most severe retina problems and happens when the thin layer at the back of your eye loosens and lifts away. It is relatively rare and mainly affects older people, typically from the age of 60 and above. Retinopathy is the term used to describe any retinal damage, including a torn retina or a detached retina.
Retinal detachment symptoms?
Several warning signs can help you identify if you have retina problems and are at risk of losing your sight as a result of retinal detachment. Symptoms of retinal detachment include:
- Short, spontaneous flashes of light that last a second
- Blurry and distorted vision -Sudden streaks, specs and spots that come into your field of vision
- Large single floaters in your eye that have the appearance of a housefly
- A sudden feeling of a curtain veil obscuring your vision
- Reduced peripheral vision
Retinal detachment tends to only happen in one eye. The chance of it occurring in both eyes are one in ten. Whether it's one eye or two, if you experience any symptoms, it's best to seek medical attention and immediately go to see your doctor.
Torn retina symptoms
Retinal tears can lead to retinal detachment, and a torn retina can have the same symptoms of retinal detachment.
What causes a detached retina?
There are three types of retinal detachment, each of which are caused by different factors.
Detached retina causes
- Rhegmatogenous - this is the most common form. A tear in your retina often causes this, allowing fluid to pass through. Fluid gathers underneath the retina as a result, and the retina detaches from the layer of tissue. A torn retina can cause loss of vision.
- Tractional - This type of retinal detachment is common in people with diabetes and other neglected health conditions. Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease that can cause blood vessels to form and if left untreated can result in scar tissue which can then contract and result in a tractional detachment. In this case, the retina detaches from the eye as a result of scar tissue growing on its surface.
- Exudative or secondary retinal detachment - This occurs when fluid is collected beneath the retina without there being a hole or tear in the retina. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) can cause this, as can inflammatory problems, eye injuries and tumours.
Lattice degeneration can also lead to retinal detachment as it weakens the retina and as a result can cause tears and holes which can develop into a retinal detachment.
Injury of the eye is a less common cause of retinal detachment. Boxers often succumb to detachments when given harsh blows to the eye. Previous eye surgery, such as cataract removal, may also make the retina more vulnerable to damage.
What is the most common cause of retinal detachment?
The most common cause of retinal detachment is ageing. The retina becomes thinner and more brittle over time and may detach from the blood vessels beneath. The nerves send signals to the brain, which allow you to see. If a substantial amount of blood deprives the nerves, the nerve cells die, which can result in loss of sight.
Can retinal detachment be prevented?
You cannot prevent retinal detachment as most cases of retinal detachment are the result of ageing.
Prevention of traumatic retinal detachment
You can prevent a retinal detachment caused by direct trauma to the eye by taking certain precautions. Precautions include protecting your eyes with the appropriate eyewear when playing sports or carrying out other activities that could pose a threat to your eyes and cause retinal damage.
How can you protect your retina?
In addition to taking precautions when playing sports, there are several ways to protect your retina and improve its health. This includes the following:
- Following a healthy and balanced diet
- Avoiding smoking
- Drinking plenty of water
- Getting regular exercise
- Wearing good quality sunglasses when in the sun
- Getting regular eye check-ups
Can a retinal detachment heal on its own?
Retinal detachments cannot heal on their own. You should treat them immediately.
How serious is a detached retina?
A detached retina can lead to permanent vision loss if left untreated. It is, therefore, a serious matter.
If your GP suspects you have a retinal detachment, they will refer you to an ophthalmologist who will examine your eyes for signs of retinal damage or detachment. They may use an ophthalmoscope or go one step further with an ultrasound scan if needed.
Retinal detachment Treatment
Surgery is often required to reattach loose retinas, and most treatments are successful. Surgery can be done under general and local anaesthetic depending on the doctor’s and the patient's personal preference.
Retinal detachment surgery
Depending on the individual and the scale of the retina problems, there are several different surgeries available, including:
- Laser surgery - a laser can weld the retina back to the tissue by creating a scar. It does this by burning around the retinal tear.
- Cryotherapy - extreme cold destroys abnormal tissue and forms a retinal scar around the tear. The scar attaches the retina to the wall of the eye.
- Scleral buckling - this involves attaching silicone or sponge onto the sclera (the white of the eye) at the spot of the retinal tear. Doing this holds the retina against the sclera until a scar heals the damage.
- Vitrectomy - the vitreous humor gel is taken from the eye to allow easy access to the retina. Silicone oil acts as a substitute to keep the retina in place. Stitches repair the hole or tear, and the silicon oil gets removed months after.
- Pneumatic retinopexy - This happens in less complicated cases. Cyropexy is first used to freeze the torn area, and the vitreous cavity gets injected with a bubble. The bubble prevents additional fluid from gathering under the retina and puts pressure on the retina, causing it to reattach.
Recovery ranges from a few weeks to many months, during which time you are likely to experience reduced vision initially, which should improve as you heal. Some people may experience reduced peripheral or central vision, even if the retina is attached again.
Leaking fluid, and feelings of stickiness and itchiness around the eye are normal after surgery.