Detached retina

Retinal detachment is when the retina, often called the ‘seeing’ part of your eye, separates from the inside of the back of your eye, potentially affecting your eyesight.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is a detached retina?

Your retina processes all the light that comes into your eye, allowing you to see. It’s a thin tissue, made up of several layers that line the back of your eye.

If it begins to separate from the back of your eye, this can threaten some or all of your sight, as it needs to remain connected to its blood supply to work properly.

A retinal detachment is rare and affects only one in 10,000 people each year. It’s more likely as you get older, with most cases occurring in people aged between 50 and 75. However, your risk is also raised if you have:

  • Moderate or severe short-sight, with a prescription of minus 3.00D or more
  • Had a previous eye injury
  • Already had a detached retina in one eye
  • Relatives who have had detached retinas
  • Had cataract surgery
  • An eye disease affecting your retina
  • Certain diseases affecting your whole body, such as Marfan syndrome (a genetic disorder of the connective tissue)

Fortunately, your sight can usually be saved if it’s diagnosed and treated promptly, so it’s vitally important to be aware of the possible symptoms and seek medical help quickly.

How to tell if you have a detached retina

Retinal tears or holes

This is more likely with age, and is the result of changes to the gel (called vitreous gel) that fills your eyeball. As you get older, it shrinks, pulling away from the retina. This is usually harmless but if it causes your retina to tear, fluid can leak between the retinal layers, causing it to detach from the back of your eye and cause flashes and floaters.

Scar tissue

Some eye conditions, such as diabetic retinopathy, can cause scar tissue to form inside your eye, which can pull on your retina, leading to detachment.

Fluid build-up

A build-up of fluid under your retina, due to injury or trauma, can also lead to a retinal detachment.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for a detached retina

You may have a detached retina if:

  • Dots, lines or shapes, known as floaters, suddenly appear in your vision
  • Floaters you’ve had for some time suddenly increase in number
  • You have a new, large floater
  • You see flashes of light in your vision
  • There seems to be a dark ‘curtain’ or shadow moving across your vision
  • You get blurred or distorted vision

Although these symptoms don’t always mean you have a detached retina, it’s important to seek medical advice to prevent permanent sight loss. See your optometrist, GP or hospital A&E department as soon as possible. If you have a dark shadow moving across your vision, you should go straight to A&E.

Causes of a detached retina

If your optometrist or GP suspects a detached retina, you'll be referred immediately to hospital to see an ophthalmologist – a doctor who specialises in eyes. Every hospital A&E department should have one on call.

The ophthalmologist will look at the back of your eye using:

  • An ophthalmoscope – a magnifying glass connected to a light
  • A slit lamp – a microscope that magnifies your eye

If the ophthalmologist can’t see your retina properly, you may be given an ultrasound scan.

Common treatments for a detached retina

Treatment will depend on the extent of the detachment or tear but will involve surgery to seal any holes or tears and reattach your retina. The earlier the surgery is carried out, the better your chances of a full recovery. Methods include:

  • Vitrectomy – removes and replaces some of the vitreous gel inside your eye so it holds your retina in place against the inside of your eye while the tear heals
  • Scleral buckling – attaches a small band around your eye to push the wall of your eye and retina closer together
  • Pneumatic retinopexy – injects a bubble of gas into your eye to push your retina against the back of your eye
  • Cryotherapy – uses laser or freezing treatment to seals retinal tears