What Is a Detached Retina?
Retinal detachment occurs when the thin layer of tissue inside the back of the eye called the retina pulls away from the underlying blood vessels that supply the eye with oxygen and nutrients. This retina absorbs the light entering the eye and converts it into electrical signals that are sent to the brain and interpreted into visual images. When the retina detaches, the signals stop and vision becomes impaired.
Most of the eye is filled with a clear gel, called vitreous, that is attached to the retina in a few locations. This gel often shrinks as we age, causing it to pull on the retina. Sometimes, this pulling can create one or more tears in the retina. Fluid gets into the tears and can cause the retina to detach from the back of the eye. Causes and risk factors for retinal tearing and detachment include:
- Normal aging, which can cause the vitreous to shrink
- Congenital abnormal retinal thinning, known as lattice degeneration
- Other diseases, especially diabetes
- Trauma to or around the eye
- Eye inflammation
A detached retina is considered a medical emergency. Symptoms may start suddenly. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should get treatment immediately:
- Flashes of light — These flashes sometimes look like stars or streaks of lightning in your field of vision.
- Floaters — When the retina tears or detaches, dark specks show up in the field of vision. These specks are called “floaters” because they appear to float around. They may also look like cobwebs. They are easy to see when you look at a plain wall or a clear sky.
- A “curtain” — Some people with detached retinas describe their vision as having a curtain over it, causing dimness or distortion.
Because retinal detachments are a serious medical condition, doctors treat them as quickly as possible with surgery. Surgical approaches to correct detachments include:
- Laser surgery — This is used to prevent a retinal detachment. Minor tears can be treated with laser surgery. Using a laser, the surgeon makes tiny burns around the tear to seal the retina in place.
- Freezing treatment — For small tears and detachments, a surgeon may also use a surgical treatment called cryopexy to freeze the retina in the area of detachment which can help reattach the retina.
- Pneumatic retinopexy — In this procedure, doctors inject a gas bubble into the eye to push the retina back into position. This is an outpatient procedure and no incisions are made and is often combined with cryopexy.
- Scleral buckle surgery — During this surgery, a silicone band is placed on the outside of the eye wall like a belt to push it closer to the torn part of the retina to close the tear.
- Vitrectomy — In this surgery, the vitreous is removed to release traction on the retina. The retina may then be sealed in place with laser or freezing treatment. The vitreous is replaced with a gas bubble, fluid or oil to hold the retina in place as it heals.
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