What is Retinal Detachment?

The retina is a light-sensitive membrane at the back of the eye. When light passes through your eye, the lens focuses an image on your retina. The retina converts the image to signals that it sends to your brain via the optic nerve. The retina works with the cornea, lens, and other parts of your eye and brain to give normal vision.

When the retina separates from the back of the eye it is called a detached retina and the cells can be deprived of oxygen. A detached retina causes blurry vision and partial or complete blindness and should be treated as a medical emergency.  There is a risk of permanent blindness if retinal detachment is left untreated or treatment is delayed.

What Are the Symptoms of Retinal Detachment

There are usually symptoms before your retina becomes detached but there is no pain.  You may have blurry vision and perhaps some partial vision loss.  It can look like a curtain has been pulled across your field of vision or you might have sudden flashes of light appearing when you look to the side.  If you suddenly get lots of floaters or string before your eye this might be another symptom of retinal detachment.

There are three types of retinal detachment – rhegmatogenous, tractional and exudative.  Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment is caused by a tear or hole in your retina.  Fluid from inside your eye enters through the hole and gets behind your retina and separates it from the membrane that gives your retina oxygen.  This is the most common type of retinal detachment.  Tractional retinal detachment happens when scar tissue on the retina’s surface contracts and pulls the retina away from the back of your eye.  This is less common and usually affects people with type 2 diabetes who have problems with the retinal vascular system.  Exudative detachement can be caused by an inflammatory disorder causing fluid to build up behind your retina.  It can also be caused by cancer behind the retina or Coats’ disease.

What Increases the Risk of Retinal Detachment?

  • A family history of retinal detachment
  • Being over 50 years old
  • Trauma to your eye
  • Nearsightedness which causes more strain on the eye
  • Posterior vitreous detachment which can be common in older people
  • Previous history of retinal detachment
  • Diabetes type 2
  • Previous cataract removal surgery

Can It Be Treated?

If you are diagnosed with retinal detachment you will be referred to hospital for surgery.  There are several types of surgery and your consultant will select the best method for your situation.

Vitrectomy – involves removing and replacing the jelly inside your eye.

Scleral buckling – attaching a small band around your eye to push the wall of your eye and the retina back together.

Pneumatic retinopexy – injecting a bubble of gas into your eye to push the retina back against the back of your eye.

Cryotherapy – sealing the tear in your retina with a laser or freezing treatment.

Surgery for retinal detachment is usually done under local anaesthetic and you will be awake at the time.  It doesn’t usually require an overnight stay in hospital.  Recovery time is 2-6 weeks after surgery.  During this time your vision might still be quite blurred and you may not be able to drive and might have to take time off work.  If you have had a bubble of gas put in your eye you won’t be able to fly during recovery.   Most people eventually return to normal activities after surgery for retinal detachment.

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