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Retinal detachment and blindness

There’s good reason to worry about a retinal detachment: Left untreated, it can cause blindness.

Retinal detachment is a painless event that occurs when your retina pulls away, or detaches, from the back of the eyeball. A detached retina is a medical emergency that can lead to blindness if it’s not promptly surgically repaired.

Learn more about retinal detachment and blindness below, including how long it takes after retinal detachment for blindness to set in and if surgery can restore vision that was lost.

How can you go blind from a detached retina?

Our sense of sight begins at the retina, which is the light-sensitive tissue that lines the inner surface of the back of the eyeball. 

The retina contains more than 100 million tiny photoreceptor cells that convert light energy into nerve signals. These signals are then sent from the retina to the visual part of the brain via the optic nerve.   

The retina is attached to an underlying layer at the back of the eye called the choroid. The choroid is a connective tissue that holds the retina in place while also supplying blood and nourishment, keeping the retina healthy and working correctly.

When the retina separates from the choroid, blood supply to the detached portion of the retina is cut off, causing the death of photoreceptor cells and permanent vision loss.  

SEE RELATED: Retinal tears: Symptoms and causes

What vision looks like with retinal detachment

Though the retinal detachment itself is painless, certain “red flags” in your vision should bring your attention to a problem. Symptoms of retinal detachment typically include:

  • Sudden appearance of or significant increase in eye floaters (dark spots or cobwebs in vision)

  • Flashes of light in your peripheral vision

  • Feeling like a dark curtain or veil is being lowered over your central vision

  • Blurred or warped vision (straight lines appearing wavy)

  • Dark shadows interfering with your peripheral vision

Experiencing any of the above symptoms is enough reason to schedule an eye exam as soon as possible. While some symptoms aren’t a definite sign of retinal detachment when experienced in isolation (such as blurred vision or floaters), it’s wise to have an eye doctor assess the health of your retinas to avoid a possible retinal detachment that could lead to blindness in the future.

How long before retinal detachment causes blindness?

There is no single, definite answer for how long it takes for a retinal detachment to cause blindness. However, if you’re asking this question because you’re experiencing symptoms of retinal detachment, you need to contact an eye doctor immediately. 

Though many eye care practices are closed evenings and weekends, they typically offer an on-call emergency hotline. This hotline will put you in contact with an eye care professional who can advise you on what action needs to be taken based on your symptoms.  

For instance, if you begin having symptoms on a Friday evening and the eye care practice will not be opened until Monday, the on-call professional can determine whether you need immediate medical attention or if you can wait until Monday to be seen by an eye doctor.  

It’s important to remember that, like any other doctor, eye doctors are available to help you when you need it, even if it’s beyond normal office hours.

SEE RELATED: When to see a retina specialist

Can retinal detachment surgery restore vision loss? 

Retina specialists explain that while it is possible for vision to improve in the months following a successful retinal detachment surgery, it’s likely that some degree of vision loss will be permanent. 

Factors that determine how well vision can be restored after surgery include:

  • How much of the retina was detached

  • The duration of the detachment

  • Whether the macula was affected 

The macula is the central part of the retina responsible for central vision. If the macula has detached, it’s unlikely that full vision will ever return, even if the operation is successful. 

The best outcomes for vision restoration are achieved when the detachment is diagnosed and treated quickly. Retinal detachment worsens over time, causing more vision loss with a higher chance of permanence. 

It’s critical that the symptoms of retinal detachment are not ignored. Consulting an eye doctor as soon as you sense something is off in your visual field, the better the chances are of avoiding serious vision loss or even blindness from a retinal detachment.

READ MORE: Detached retina surgery recovery

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Gary Heiting, OD

Gary Heiting, OD, is a former senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 30 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear ... Read more