Retinal detachment is a serious medical condition that can result in loss of vision or blindness. Detachment occurs when the retina peels away from the supportive tissue beneath it. The detachment may begin in a local area, but if untreated, the entire retina may detach, causing total vision loss.
Retinal detachment is a serious medical emergency. Luckily, if it is treated quickly, detachment need not cause permanent damage. Here are the major risk factors for retinal detachment, the four most common symptoms, and what this condition means for your health.
Thousands of retinal detachments are diagnosed each year, but people who are over 40 are at higher risk for the condition. Retinal detachment is usually the result of aging vitreous fluid in the eye. For this reason, it is rare in children, except where a traumatic eye injury has occurred.
These factors may also increase your risk of retinal detachment:
- severe nearsightedness
- history of eye injury
- cataract surgery
- family history of retinal detachment
- eye cancer
- malignant hypertension
Retinal tearing or detachment can affect individuals who don’t fall into any of these categories, but your risk is substantially higher if your have any of these risk factors.
If you are at risk, schedule regular eye exams to check for retinal tearing and monitor your vision closely for the following four symptoms.
Floaters are small shapes that move across the surface of the eye, often when in a brightly lit area or looking toward a light source. They may look like spots, squiggly lines, or thin strands. When you’re young, the vitreous humor (the fluid that fills your eye) is thick and gel-like. As your eyes age, the vitreous humor becomes more watery, allowing undissolved bits to float across the surface of your eye.
Some floaters are normal, they just mean your eyes are aging. However, if you suddenly have more floaters than usual or a ring of floaters to the side of your central vision, you should talk to your doctor. Higher numbers of floaters, or a sudden increase in the number of floaters, may indicate that too much vitreous fluid is liquefying, moving your retina.
Photopsia, or the presence of perceived flashes of light, is a sign of retinal tearing or detachment. Photopsia is caused by problems with the vitreous fluid in the eye. Either the vitreous fluid is tightening, pulling and possibly tearing, the retina, or the fluid has become watered down allowing thicker vitreous gel to bump into the retina.
Though the lights may resemble lightning strikes in the peripheral vision, photopsia should not be confused with the “fireworks” that occasionally happen behind closed eyelids. Those lights are an afterimage, caused by exposure to high levels of light or bright light flashes. Photopsia usually occurs with the eyes open and it may not go away when you close them.
If you experience photopsia, talk to your doctor. The lights are nearly always caused by abnormal movement in the vitreous humor and the pulling could cause total detachment if left untreated.
Retinal detachment can be accompanied by pain, pressure, or heaviness in the eye. This is particularly likely if the retinal tear is the result of an eye injury or head trauma.
Monitor your vision closely after an eye injury. Heaviness may not be linked to retinal detachment, but if you experience any other symptoms of detachment or your eye feels heavy without a history of eye injury, address the problem with your optometrist.
4. Shadowed Vision
Darkened peripheral vision is a symptom of several eye conditions. However, shadowed side vision, accompanied with central vision loss or warped vision usually indicates retinal detachment.
Individuals who experience this kind of vision loss describe it as resembling a dark curtain being drawn from the side of their vision toward the center. Straight lines, like those on scales, roads, or the edges of barriers, may also appear curved, though this is also a symptom of age-related macular degeneration. If you feel your vision has become warped, your doctor will use an Amsler grid test to confirm. These changes are serious and must be addressed immediately.
What a Diagnosis of Retinal Detachment Means
The symptoms and risks associated with retinal detachment can be scary. Luckily, effective treatment is available.
If you experience these symptoms and are diagnosed with retinal tears or detachment, your doctor will prescribe treatment based on the severity of the tear. According to Dr. Bishop & Associates, a Calgary eye clinic, these are the most common treatment options:
- Scleral Buckles: Bands are placed around the eye to counteract the looseness in the vitreous fluid.
- Vitrectomy: Several incisions are made in the eye. Some of the vitreous fluid is removed and replaced with silicone oil to stabilize the viscosity in the eye.
- Pneumatic Retinopexy: If the retina has detached completely, a small gas bubble is placed in the eye to gently push the retina back into place. Then, cryotherapy or lasers are used to seal any remaining tears.
Retinal tearing and minor detachment can be corrected, but unless treatment is begun within 24 to 72 hours of when the symptoms appear, it may result in permanent vision loss. If you are at risk for retinal detachment, monitor your vision. You should address any sudden changes in vision with your doctor immediately.