Retinal Detachment

Overview

Retinal detachment

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. 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: the sudden appearance of floaters and flashes and reduced vision. Contacting an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) right away can help save your vision.

Symptoms

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 visual field

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.

Diagnosis

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.

More Information Ultrasound

Treatment

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.

Retinal tears

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.

Retinal detachment

  • 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.

Retina Foundation

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