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Retinal detachment FAQs

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What is the most common cause of retinal detachment?

The most common causes of retinal detachment are age and injury. There are three types of retinal detachment — each with their own characteristics and causes:

Tractional retinal detachment: This occurs when scar tissue on the retina pulls it away from the back of the eye. It is seen most commonly in individuals with diabetes, because of damage the disease can do to blood vessels in the retina.

Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment (RRD): Considered the most common type of detached retina, a rhegmatogenous (“reg-ma-TAH-juh-nus”) retinal detachment is associated with a hole or tear in the retina. The gel-like fluid inside your eye (the vitreous) can leak through the hole and collect behind the retina, pushing it farther away from the back of the eye until it detaches. While injury and eye surgery are possible causes, aging is the most common cause of RRD.

Exudative retinal detachment: Similar to RRD, exudative retinal detachment involves fluid buildup behind the retina; however, no holes or tears are present. As the fluid gathers, it pushes the retina from the back of the eye, eventually causing it to detach. This type of retinal detachment is attributed to swelling in the eye and leaking blood vessels commonly associated with eye injury, inflammation, tumors or age-related macular degeneration.

Does retinal detachment happen suddenly?

Retinal detachment can happen suddenly or gradually, depending on the cause.

If trauma or injury to the eye is responsible for the detachment, it typically occurs suddenly. This may be due to the vitreous exerting significant traction on the retina, causing it to tear and detach from the back of the eye.

Usually, with age-related retinal detachments, the vitreous will tug or rub against the retina for a period of time before the retina eventually detaches. There are many instances where the vitreous will pull against the retina and cause flashes of light (a symptom of retinal detachment), but no tearing or detachment of the retina occurs.

SEE RELATED: When to see a retina specialist

Is retinal detachment painful?

No, retinal detachment is not painful. In fact, many people don’t feel anything at all, so when the warning signs of retinal detachment appear, they don’t realize what’s happening.

That’s why recognizing signs of retinal detachment is so important. They can alert you that something is wrong within your eye so you can seek medical attention before severe damage is done.

What are the symptoms of a detached retina?

Symptoms of a detached retina include varying degrees of the following:

  • Flashes or streaks of light in your peripheral vision

  • Sudden appearance of or considerable increase in eye floaters

  • Shadows that develop in your peripheral vision (sometimes described as a “dark curtain”)

Again, no pain is felt when a retina detaches from the back of the eyeball, so relying on the symptoms above is your best bet for detecting a problem and scheduling an eye exam.

Are flashes in the eye dangerous?

While flashes of light are a common sign of retinal detachment, the presence of them isn’t necessarily dangerous.

When vitreous gel within the eye tugs, bumps or rubs against the retina, this mechanical traction on cells in the retina triggers a flash of light. More often than not, this phenomenon is harmless and there is no need for alarm.

However, if you suddenly begin to notice frequent flashes of light, see an eye doctor. Your doctor can determine if the flashes indicate you are at risk for or already have signs of a detached retina.

Is retinal detachment an emergency?

Yes, a detached retina is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. While there is no need to panic, symptoms of retinal detachment are definitely not something to ignore.

If you begin having symptoms of retinal detachment, contact an eye doctor immediately and tell them about your symptoms.

If your symptoms are caused by a detached retina, failure to seek immediate care by an eye doctor and have timely retinal detachment surgery could result in permanent vision loss and even blindness.

SEE RELATED: Retinal detachment and blindness

How long can retinal detachment go untreated?

A detached retina should be treated surgically as soon as possible to prevent unnecessary vision loss.

Research that evaluated outcomes of surgeries performed at Stanford University Hospital to repair retinal detachments affecting the macula found that the sooner surgery is performed, the better the visual outcome.

Patients in the retrospective study were divided into two groups:

  • Group 1 (52 eyes) underwent surgery within three days of macular retinal detachment.

  • Group 2 (27 eyes) had surgery within four to seven days of macular retinal detachment.

The mean follow-up period was 19.6 months, and the researcher found the final visual acuity after surgery was significantly better in Group 1 (approximately 20/30) than in Group 2 (approximately 20/70).

Also, within Group 1, final visual acuity was significantly better in patients who underwent surgery one day following the presumed start of their retinal detachment compared with those who had surgery three days after the detachment began.

Other research has likewise shown that the longer the patients waited to undergo retinal detachment surgery, the less likely it was for them to regain good vision.

In a study of 94 patients with macular retinal detachments who underwent surgery at times ranging from one day to more than six weeks after the detachment began:

  • Those who had surgery within 10 days of the detachment attained an average visual acuity of approximately 20/40 after the procedure.

  • Those who had surgery 11 days to six weeks after retinal detachment attained an average visual acuity of slightly worse than 20/100.

  • Those who had surgery more than six weeks after retinal detachment attained an average visual acuity of approximately 20/200.

These data emphasize the importance of seeing an eye doctor as soon as possible once you experience symptoms of a possible retinal detachment.

Can retinal detachment heal on its own?

No, it is not possible for retinal detachment to heal on its own.

Treatment for retinal detachment requires surgery to reattach the retina to the back of the eye and restore blood supply to the retina, which the eye will not do on its own.

However, minor retinal tears can sometimes form scar tissue at the border of the torn retina that can keep a small tear from worsening. In such cases, surgery may not be required.

How do you repair a detached retina?

Detached retinas must be repaired with retinal detachment surgery. Different types of retinal detachment surgery include:

Vitrectomy: In a vitrectomy, an eye surgeon removes the gel-like vitreous from the back of the eye to relieve tugging on the retina. Air or gas is then injected to press the detached portion of the retina against the back of the eye so healing can occur. Eventually the air or gas is absorbed by the body and the vitreous space refills with the aqueous fluid that’s produced inside the eye. In some cases, a vitrectomy may be combined with a scleral buckling procedure (listed below).

Pneumatic retinopexy: In this procedure, a retina surgeon injects a gas bubble into the vitreous body in the back of the eye. Your head is positioned so that the bubble floats to the area of the retinal detachment and presses the detached portion to the back of the eyeball to reconnect it to its blood supply while healing occurs. The surgeon then seals any tear in the retina using a laser or freezing probe.

Scleral buckle: Rather than addressing a detached retina from the inside of the eye like the other two procedures, a scleral buckle approaches retinal reattachment from the outside. A band of soft plastic or rubber is permanently fastened to the outside of the eyeball and gently pushes the eye inward. Using this method, the retina is able to reattach and heal against the side of the eye wall.

Because a detached retina is such a serious condition, it’s important to have regular eye exams to make sure your retinas look healthy. An eye doctor will determine if you’re at risk for retinal detachment or other age-related vision problems.

READ MORE: Detached retina surgery recovery

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