Retinal detachment itself is painless, but retinal detachment warning signs and symptoms almost always appear before it occurs or has advanced. Retinal detachment 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
When to see a doctor
Because retinal detachment is an emergency situation in which you can permanently lose your vision, you should always seek immediate medical attention if you notice any of its symptoms.
Retinal detachment can occur as a result of:
- Shrinkage or contraction of the vitreous (VIT-ree-us) — the gel-like material that fills the inside of your eye. This can create tugging on the retina and a retinal tear, leading to a retinal detachment.
- Advanced diabetes
- An inflammatory eye disorder
How retinal detachment occurs
Retinal detachment can occur when the gel-like material (vitreous) leaks through a retinal hole or tear and collects underneath the retina.
Reasons for holes or tears include:
Aging or retinal disorders can cause the retina to thin. Retinal detachment due to a tear in the retina typically develops when there is a sudden collapse of the vitreous, causing tugging on the retina with enough force to create a tear.
Fluid inside the vitreous then finds its way through the tear and collects under the retina, peeling it away from the underlying tissues. These tissues contain a layer of blood vessels called the choroid (KOR-oid). The areas where the retina is detached lose this blood supply and stop working, so you lose vision.
- In certain inflammatory conditions or other disorders, fluid also can accumulate beneath the retina without a tear or break.
Aging-related retinal tears that lead to retinal detachment
As you age, your vitreous may change in consistency and shrink or become more liquid. Eventually, the vitreous may separate from the surface of the retina — a common condition called posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). It's also called vitreous collapse.
As the vitreous separates or peels off the retina, it may tug on the retina with enough force to create a retinal tear. Left untreated, fluid from the vitreous cavity can pass through the tear into the space behind the retina, causing the retina to become detached.
PVD can cause visual symptoms. You may see flashes of sparkling lights (photopsia) when your eyes are closed or when you're in a darkened room. New or different floaters may appear in your field of vision.
The following factors increase your risk of retinal detachment:
- 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
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.