A detached retina is a relatively rare (1 in every 10,000 people are affected at some point) problem affecting the eye which occurs when the lining at the back (the retina) becomes detached and pulls away from the blood vessels that normally provide it with necessary oxygen and nutrients. It's highly important to treat detached retinas promptly, as they can otherwise lead to blindness in the affected eye. Here we will identify the symptoms, causes and treatment options for the problem.
The most common warning sign that you may be suffering from a detached retina is the appearance of 'floaters' in the affected eye. These are dark patches that will float in your line of vision.
Alongside these you may also notice flashes in the eye, and potentially distorted or blurred vision. Ultimately you can begin to lose vision in the eye which is often described as looking like a black 'curtain' or shadow spreading across the field of vision.
Retinal detachment becomes more common as we get older and the retina becomes thinner and more brittle. This causes it to begin pulling away from the blood vessels. It can also be caused or triggered by direct trauma which tears the retina away.
If you suspect you are experiencing the symptoms of a retinal detachment, then you should see a doctor immediately. They will diagnose the problem and if they suspect retinal detachment they will refer you to an ophthalmologist usually that day.
There your eye will be studied with an opthalmoscope which is a magnifying glass that uses a bright light and a slit lamp. An ultrasound may also be carried out.
Usually retinal detachment is treated with surgery which is normally effective. Different types of surgery will be used depending on the nature of the case. In most cases it is possible to treat retinal detachment using local anaesthetics.
Common surgical techniques include…
Pneumatic Retinopexy: This treatment is used when the detachment is small and uncomplicated. Here a small bubble of gas is injected inside the eye, which is then sufficient to press the retina back into place. Once this is carried out, a laser or freezing will be used in order to create scar tissue that ensures the retina stays in place. The bubble gets slowly absorbed by the eye over subsequent weeks.
Scleral Buckling: Here fine bands of silicone or sponge are stitched onto the exterior of the sclera (the white of the eye) around the area of the detachment. As the name suggests, this creates a 'buckle' which presses the sclera to the middle of the eye and forces the retina against the wall of the eye. Once again freezing or lasers will be used to secure the new position.
Vitrectomy: In a vitrectomy, fluids are removed from the inside of the eye and replaced with gas or a silicone bubble to keep the retina in place. This is used in cases where the detachment is caused by unusual thick fluid at the front of the eye. Small stitches are used to close the wound afterwards.
Using one of these methods, the retina can be reattached with a high rate of success – though it can take up to several months for patients to recover during which time you may be affected by poor vision and may be unable to drive or to go on commercial flights.
In some cases vision may not fully recover and you may experience reduced peripheral or central vision. The longer the detachment goes untreated, the more likely it is that there may be permanent damage – so make sure you see a doctor as soon as you notice any of the symptoms.