The retina is the nerve layer which lines the back of the eye. It senses light and sends signals to the brain which in turn interprets these signals and converts them to images resulting in vision. As one ages, the vitreous gel inside the eye contracts and as a result can pull on the retina. This can lead to a retinal tear. Vitreous fluid can then leak through the tear and accumulate beneath the retina causing the retina to detach from the back wall of the eye. Once detached, the retina stops functioning. Left untreated, a retinal detachment can lead to blindness.
Early symptoms of a retinal tear include new floaters (particles floating in the vision) and the onset of flashing lights. As symptoms progress, the vision may be obscured by a shadow or gray curtain-like feature which may signal a retinal detachment. Typically there is no pain or discomfort associated with a retinal tear or detachment.
The most common cause of a retinal tear and subsequent detachment is the contraction of the vitreous gel inside the eye exerting tension on the retina. This tension may cause a retinal hole to form through which fluid can pass. The fluid can then lift the retina off of the back wall of the eye. Other conditions that may contribute to a retinal tear include nearsightedness, severe eye trauma, intraocular surgery, family history of retinal detachment, weak areas in the retina known as lattice degeneration or a history of retinal detachment in the other eye.
Retinal tears are treated with laser surgery or cryotherapy which seal the retina and prevent it from detaching. If a retinal detachment is present a more complex surgical procedure is required to repair and reposition the retina. Depending on the clinical findings, your doctor may recommend a pneumatic retinopexy, a scleral buckling procedure or a vitrectomy. Most surgical repairs are successful but visual recovery may take months. In some cases only partial vision is restored. Retinal detachments occur that cannot be repaired in which case visual loss is permanent.