If we were to ask you to name different parts of the human eye, chances are that you would quickly think about the retina. The term “retina” refers to an extremely important membrane that sits on the back of our eye. This light-sensitive membrane is what transforms the light energy being perceived by our eyes into electrical signals; these signals then travel along the optic nerve to our brain, where the signals are interpreted and transformed into a visual picture. Without the retina, it would be impossible for us to see anything.

Unfortunately, like any part of our body, our retina can be damaged in the right circumstances. One of the worst things that can develop is retinal detachment – a condition that’s classified as a medical emergency. Because retinal detachment is so devastating, it’s important to understand its causes and symptoms so you can recognize if it’s developing in your own eyes.

 What Causes Retinal Detachment?

Retinal detachment occurs when the retina is lifted or pulled from its normal position inside our eye; once separated from the tissues it’s normally connected to, the retina can no longer function. There are a number of reasons that a retinal detachment may develop, depending on the type of detachment that’s taking place:

  • Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment occurs when fluid in the eye leaks through an existing tear or break in the retinal membrane. Once this happens, the liquid can separate the membrane from the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). This type of detachment – which pulls the retina from its key source of nourishment and can destroy the retina’s connection to other important parts of the eye – is the most common type of retinal detachment.
  • Tractionalretinal detachment is a less common type of detachment. It typically occurs when existing scar tissue within the eye contracts. Eventually, this movement of scar tissue can cause the retina to separate from the RPE; this, like the rhegmatogenous retinal detachment, cuts off the retinal membrane from its key source of nourishment, preventing the retina from functioning normally.
  • Exudative retinal detachment typically takes place when the eye becomes infected or experiences an injury or trauma. Similar to rhegmatogenous retinal detachment, an exudative retinal detachment occurs when fluid from the eye leaks into the area underneath the retina. However, in this case there are no major tears or breaks in the retina causing the leakage.

While retinal detachments are most likely to occur in individuals who are over the age of 40, they can occur at any age and affect both men and women. There are also certain factors that can increase one’s risk of developing this condition. Retinal detachments are more likely to occur in patients who suffer from nearsightedness; who have undergone cataract surgery; who have previously suffered from a retinal detachment or who have a family history of the condition; who have suffered a traumatic injury to the eye; or who are currently dealing with other eye diseases or disorders.

How Will I Know If I Have Developed A Retinal Detachment?

As stated earlier, the medical community considers retinal detachments a medical emergency. Without prompt treatment, retinal detachment can cause partial or permanent vision loss. Because of this, and because retinal detachments are a painless condition, it’s important that people learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of retinal detachments.

Patients suffering from a retinal detachment will commonly begin seeing floaters or flashes of light; some patients will see more floaters or flashes over time, while others begin seeing large numbers of them all at once. Patients may see a “curtain” over their field of vision that partially obstructs their ability to see; some patients also experience a darkening in their peripheral vision.

If you experience any of these symptoms, see an eye care professional immediately. Depending on the type of detachment a patient is suffering from, and the severity of the condition, patients may need to undergo a combination of common treatments for retinal detachment.

Can I Prevent A Retinal Detachment From Occurring?

The #1 way to prevent a retinal detachment is to regularly visit with your eye doctor for basic eye exams. During these exams, your eye doctor will be able to check your eye for problems that could lead to a retinal detachment later on. Treating these developing issues can sometimes help to prevent a detachment from occurring in the future. Outside of your doctor’s office, you should also wear proper eye protection during sports or at work (if necessary) to protect your eyes from potential traumatic events or accidents, as these events always raise your risk of developing a retinal detachment.

While retinal detachments can be scary to think about, regularly visiting with your eye doctor and immediately reporting any symptoms that could be a sign of trouble will go a long way in keeping your eyes healthy. If, however, you want to visit with your doctor to ask additional or more specific questions about what you can do to take care of your eyes, or to discuss your risk of developing a condition such as retinal detachment, we encourage you to make an appointment and visit with us so we can address your concerns.

*Image courtesy of commons.wikipedia.org