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Retinal detachment: Types and what to look for

illustration comparing the anatomy of a healthy eye vs an eye with retinal detachment

There are two primary types of retinal detachment, and each can cause permanent vision loss and even blindness. Retinal detachment is a serious condition in which the light-sensitive retina separates from the back of the eyeball.

The two main types of retinal detachment are:

  • Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment

  • Non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment

The primary difference between these retinal detachment types is whether or not they are associated with a break (“rhegma”) in the retinal tissue.

Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment

The most common type of retinal detachment is a rhegmatogenous (“reg-mah-TAH-jeh-nus”) retinal detachment.

There are two types of breaks in the retina that can lead to the development of a rhegmatogenous retinal detachment:

If a hole or tear occurs in the retina, vitreous fluid in the eye can enter the break and seep under the surrounding retinal tissue, causing a retinal detachment.

Detachment of the retina from the back of the eye cuts off its blood supply and nourishment, causing vision loss. Retinal detachment surgery can repair the retina and prevent further damage, but vision loss that occurs before treatment often cannot be restored.

If a small hole or tear occurs in the peripheral retina, it may not cause any visual symptoms until the surrounding retina begins to detach. 

But if these retinal breaks occur in the macula (the most sensitive part of the central retina), they will usually cause blurred or distorted vision even before a rhegmatogenous retinal detachment develops.

Retinal holes and tears often develop during a posterior vitreous detachment

Who’s at risk: Aging is the main risk factor for this type of retinal detachment, though it’s possible for young people to be affected. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of retinal detachment and to see an eye doctor if you experience any of them, regardless of your age.

SEE RELATED: Retinal hole: Is it serious?

Non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment

Non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachments occur without a hole or tear being present in the retina. 

While this type of retinal detachment is less common than a rhegmatogenous retinal detachment, it is equally dangerous to your sight.

Types of non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment include:

  • Tractional retinal detachment

  • Exudative retinal detachment

Tractional retinal detachment

This type of retinal detachment is caused by tension and pulling on the front surface of the retina. This can occur when scar tissue or a fibrous sheet (called an epiretinal membrane) develops on the surface of the retina. 

Eventually, this traction can separate the retina from underlying tissue in the back of theye that provides blood flow to keep the retina healthy. 

Who’s at risk: Individuals with diabetes, sickle cell retinopathy or a history of eye trauma are at a higher risk of this type of retinal detachment and should have regular eye exams to manage retinal health.

Exudative retinal detachment

Exudative retinal detachment (also called serous retinal detachment) is another type of detached retina seen by retina specialists

This type of retinal detachment occurs as a result of accumulation of fluid within the retina due to abnormalities in the retina’s blood flow and ability to transport water. Eventually, this can cause separation of retinal layers or detachment of the retina from the back of the eye.

Who’s at risk: Exudative retinal detachment is seen most commonly in individuals with inflammatory conditions, eye trauma, tumors or age-related macular degeneration.

What does retinal detachment look like?

While retinal detachment may sound painful, it’s common for individuals to feel nothing when it occurs. Because of this, it’s important to take notice of the visual symptoms that accompany a retinal detachment. These include:

  • Sudden increase in or appearance of eye floaters

  • Flashes of light in your peripheral vision that are not caused by an outside source

  • The feeling that a shadow-like curtain is lowering on your vision

  • Blurred or warped vision

  • Shadows in or darkening of peripheral vision

The damage done to your vision by any type of retinal detachment, though gradual, is permanent. It is critical that you schedule an eye exam as soon as you notice symptoms of retinal detachment. The longer you wait to seek treatment, the more eyesight you may lose.

READ MORE: Retinal detachment and blindness

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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