Retinal detachment describes an emergency situation in which a thin layer of tissue (the retina) at the back of the eye pulls away from its normal position.
Retinal detachment separates the retinal cells from the layer of blood vessels that provides oxygen and nourishment. The longer retinal detachment goes untreated, the greater your risk of permanent vision loss in the affected eye.
Warning signs of retinal detachment include the sudden appearance of floaters and flashes and reduced vision. Contacting an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) right away can help save your vision.
Retinal detachment itself is painless. But warning signs almost always appear before it occurs or has advanced, such as:
- The sudden appearance of many floaters — tiny specks that seem to drift through your field of vision
- Flashes of light in one or both eyes
- Blurred vision
- Gradually reduced side (peripheral) vision
- A curtain-like shadow over your visual field
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing the signs or symptoms of retinal detachment. You are at greater risk of developing a retinal detachment if:
- You're older than 50
- You or a family member has had a detached retina
- You're extremely nearsighted
Retinal detachment is a medical emergency in which you can permanently lose your vision.
Retinal detachment can occur as a result of:
- A sagging vitreous (VIT-ree-us) — the gel-like material that fills the inside of your eye
- Advanced diabetes
How retinal detachment occurs
Retinal detachment can occur when the gel-like material (vitreous) leaks through a retinal hole or tear and collects underneath the retina.
Aging or retinal disorders can cause the retina to thin. Retinal detachment due to a tear in the retina typically develops when the vitreous collapses and tugs on the retina with enough force to create a tear.
Fluid inside the vitreous then finds its way through the tear and collects under the retina, peeling it away from the underlying tissues. These tissues contain a layer of blood vessels called the choroid (KOR-oid). The areas where the retina is detached lose this blood supply and stop working, so you lose vision.
Aging-related retinal tears that lead to retinal detachment
As you age, your vitreous may change in consistency and shrink or become more liquid. Eventually, the vitreous may separate from the surface of the retina — a common condition called posterior vitreous detachment (PVD).
As the vitreous separates or peels off the retina, it may tug on the retina with enough force to create a retinal tear. Left untreated, fluid from the vitreous cavity can pass through the tear into the space behind the retina, causing the retina to become detached.
PVD can cause visual symptoms. You may see sudden new floaters or flashes of lights (photopsia). These may be visible even in daylight. The flashes may be more noticeable when your eyes are closed or you're in a darkened room.
The following factors increase your risk of retinal detachment:
- Aging — retinal detachment is more common in people over age 50
- Previous retinal detachment in one eye
- A family history of retinal detachment
- Extreme nearsightedness (myopia)
- Previous eye surgery, such as cataract removal
- Previous severe eye injury
- Previous other eye disease or inflammation