The retina, the thin layers of tissue at the back of the eye, is essential to our vision. Because it’s packed with the cells that process light into images, then send that information to the brain, the retina must be supplied with oxygen and nutrients by the system of blood vessels that surround it.
However, when the retinal tissue begins to pull away from the wall at the back of the eye, it’s known as retinal detachment – and it must be treated promptly. In most cases, retinal detachment is caused when fluid leaks in to the layers of tissue through a hole or tear in the retina. Untreated, a detached retina can lead to a loss of vision – so if you note any sudden changes in your vision, you must see your eye doctor as soon as possible.
Learn the Symptoms
As the retina starts to pull away from the back of the eye, it becomes separated from the blood vessels that provide its crucial source of oxygen. This begins to cause disruptions in vision, which normally take four forms:
- Floaters: the appearance of dust or debris-like objects floating in your vision. These are common, especially as we age, but be alert if the quantity or intensity of floaters suddenly changes.
- Flashes: the perception of flashes of light at the periphery (or edge) of our vision.
- Shadow: Patients experiencing retinal detachment often describe the perception of a shadow or a dark curtain they cannot see through or around.
- Blurred vision: another common occurrence, not always related to retinal detachment. But if blurring occurs along with any of the other symptoms, speak with your eye doctor right away.
Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean your retina may be detaching, but the only way to know for sure is to have a thorough examination as soon as possible. Be sure to tell the staff about your symptoms when you book your appointment, so you can be seen quickly. In many cases, a suspected retinal detachment is treated as a medical emergency, so they will want to assess you straight away.
It’s worth noting as well that, while retinal detachment usually only happens in one eye, if you’ve been diagnosed with it, the chances it could happen in the other eye increase to one-in-ten. This is especially true if, as is often the case, the retinal detachment is the natural result of the aging process, which makes the layers of tissue in the retina thinner and more porous. There can also be a genetic component to retinal detachment, meaning that if there is a history of it in your family, you could be at a higher risk.
Retinal detachment can be treated through surgery, most often in an operation called a vitrectomy, though other options can be used. Retinal surgery is complicated and the prognosis varies widely among individuals, though the earlier it’s diagnosed and treated, the more successful the outcome is likely to be. What is more, there aren’t many preventative measures available, although – as most cases are caused by a hole or tear in the retina – it’s always a good idea to wear eye protection when doing anything that could risk an eye injury, such as sport or working with tools.
This all underscores the importance of having regular eye exams. Even before symptoms appear and healthy vision is at risk, a thorough exam can detect the presence of small holes or tears in the retina before they lead to bigger problems, so be sure to book your next appointment.