Retinal detachment describes an emergency situation in which a critical layer of tissue (the retina) at the back of the eye pulls away from the layer of blood vessels that provides it with oxygen and nourishment.

Retinal detachment leaves the retinal cells lacking oxygen. The longer retinal detachment goes untreated, the greater your risk of permanent vision loss in the affected eye.

Fortunately, retinal detachment often has symptoms that are clear warning signs. Early diagnosis and treatment of retinal detachment can save your vision. If you suspect you may have a retinal detachment, contact an eye doctor as soon as warning signs appear.

Signs and Symptoms

Retinal detachment itself is painless, but there are warning signs and symptoms that almost always appear before detachment occurs or has advanced. Symptoms may include:

  • The sudden appearance of many floaters — small bits of debris in your field of vision that look like spots, hairs or strings and seem to float before your eyes
  • Sudden flashes of light in the affected eye
  • A shadow or curtain over a portion of your visual field that develops as the detachment progresses

Causes

  • Shrinkage or contraction of the gel-like material that fills the inside of your eye. This can create a tugging on the retina and a retinal tear, leading to a retinal detachment.
  • Injury
  • Advanced diabetes
  • An inflammatory eye disorder

Risk Factors

  • Aging — retinal detachment is more common in people older than age 40
  • 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 or trauma
  • Previous other eye disease or disorder

Treatment

Surgery is almost always used to repair a retinal tear, hole or detachment. When a retinal tear or hole hasn’t yet progressed to detachment, your eye surgeon may suggest an outpatient procedure, which can usually prevent retinal detachment and preserve almost all of your vision. Those procedures are laser surgery or cryopexy (freezing).

Surgery doesn’t always work to reattach the retina. Also, a reattached retina doesn’t guarantee normal vision. How well you see after surgery depends in part on whether the central part of the retina (macula) was affected by the detachment before surgery and, if it was, for how long. Your vision may take many months to improve after repair of a retinal detachment. Some people don’t recover any lost vision.

Prevention

There is no way to prevent retinal detachment. However, being aware of the following typical warning signs of a detached retina could help save your vision:

  • Sudden increase in floaters
  • Bright flashes of light
  • A shadow or curtain that seems to advance across your visual field

If you notice any of these signs — particularly if you’re older than age 40, you or a family member has had a detached retina, or you’re extremely nearsighted — you should seek immediate medical attention.