Retinal Detachment

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on April 04, 2022
4 min read

Retinal detachment is a serious eye condition that happens when your retina -- a layer of tissue at the back of your eye that processes light -- pulls away from the tissue around it. Doctors also call it detached retina.

Since your retina can't work properly when this happens, you could have permanent vision loss if you don’t get it treated right away. Call your eye doctor or have someone take you to the ER.

A detached retina doesn't hurt. It can happen with no warning. You might notice:

  • Flashes of light
  • Lots of new "floaters" (small flecks or threads in your vision)
  • Darkness or a “curtain” over your vision, including the middle or the sides

Retinal tear

Your retina could tear before it detaches. A torn retina usually has the same symptoms as a detached one.

If your retina gets torn, the fluid inside your eye can leak underneath and separate the retina from its underlying tissue. That's a retinal detachment.

Go to the eye doctor right away. They can fix it in the office with a laser procedure. If it detaches fully, you'll need more serious surgery to repair it.

There are three main types of retinal detachment:

  • Rhegmatogenous. This is the most common kind. It happens because of a retinal tear. Age usually causes it, as the vitreous gel that fills your eyeball pulls away from your retina. You can also have it because of an eye injury, surgery, or nearsightedness.
  • Tractional. This type happens when scar tissue pulls on your retina, usually because diabetes has damaged the blood vessels in the back of your eye.
  • Exudative. This kind happens when fluid builds up behind your retina, but there’s no tear. The fluid pushes your retina away from the tissue behind it. Common causes include leaking blood vessels and swelling because of conditions such as an injury, inflammation, or age-related macular degeneration.

You're more likely to have a detached retina as you get older or if you have:

  • Severe nearsightedness
  • An eye injury or cataract surgery
  • A family history of retinal detachment
  • Lattice degeneration (thinning along the edges of your retina)
  • Diabetic retinopathy (damaged blood vessels in your retina because of diabetes)
  • Posterior vitreous detachment (the vitreous gel in your eye pulls away from your retina)

Your doctor will give you eye drops that widen (dilate) your pupil. They’ll use a special tool to look through it to see whether your retina is detached. They may also want to take some photos of your retina.

Your treatment may involve one or more of these procedures:

  • Laser (thermal) or freezing (cryopexy). Both methods can repair a tear if it’s diagnosed early enough. They’re often done in the doctor's office.
  • Pneumatic retinopexy. This works well for a tear that’s small and easy to close. Your doctor injects a tiny gas bubble into your vitreous gel. It presses against the upper part of your retina, closing the tear. You’ll need to hold your head in a certain position for several days to keep the bubble in the right place.
  • Scleral buckle. Your doctor sews a silicone band (buckle) around the white of your eye (called the sclera). This pushes it toward the tear or detachment until it heals. This band is invisible and is permanently attached.
  • Vitrectomy. This surgery repairs large tears or detachment. Your doctor removes the vitreous gel and replaces it with a gas bubble or oil. A vitrectomy also might require you to hold your head in one position for some time.

About 80% to 90% of retina procedures are successful, but you might need to have more than one. It may take several months for your vision to return. Some people don’t get all of their vision back, especially in more severe cases.

A detached retina won’t heal on its own. It’s important to get medical care as soon as possible so you have the best odds of keeping your vision.

Possible complications of retinal detachment surgery

Any surgical procedure has some risks. Surgery for a detached retina can lead to:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Higher pressure inside your eye (glaucoma)
  • Fogging of the lens in your eye (cataract)

Get to your eye doctor right away if you see new floaters, flashing lights, or any other changes in your vision.

An eye exam can also flag early changes that you may not have noticed. Treatment could prevent problems down the road. Get your eyes checked once a year, or more often if you have conditions like diabetes or if you’re very nearsighted.

If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, keep those conditions under control. That will help keep the blood vessels in your retina healthy.

Consider wearing eye protection. Try sports goggles with polycarbonate lenses if you play racquetball or other activities that could lead to eye injuries. You may also need special glasses if you work with machines, chemicals, or tools for your job or at home.