Answers by Mitchell Gossman, MD, an ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota, located in St. Cloud
What is a retinal detachment?
First some background of how the eye works. The eye is much like a camera. Light enters the front of the eye and is focused just like a camera lens focuses light. This passes through the pupil, the adjustable opening which controls how much light enters the camera, just like the mechanical iris in the camera. The light images are focused onto the back of the eye where the tissue called the retina is. This tissue is like the film or digital sensor in a camera in that it detects light images, which is then delivered to the brain. The retina is a delicate layer of tissue which has its own blood supply, and lines the inside of the eye. Imagine if you had a layer of cellophane lining the inside of a ping-pong ball, that is the general appearance of the retina. For the retina to function, it must lie against the inner wall of the eye, and if the retina pulls away, much like for example wallpaper peeling off a wall, the retina no longer functions well in that area.
What would I notice if I had a retinal detachment?
A detached retina usually starts as a tear in the retina which allows fluid to go underneath the retina and cause it to peel away. When the retina is torn, it bleeds, and you are likely to see a snowstorm of floaters, black specks or strings in your vision. The retina as it is torn and peels away causes flashes of light, similar to what you experience when you see a flash photo or lighting in your peripheral vision. As the retina detaches, usually over hours or days, you will see part of your peripheral vision missing.
Is a retinal detachment an emergency?
It is. If you see sudden onset of new floaters, flashing lights, or a defect in your peripheral vision, you should contact an ophthalmologist as soon as possible to plan an evaluation. Left untreated, it will eventually result in blindness. When caught early, most patients will avoid blindness, and sometimes the vision that was lost can be restored. If you have longstanding floaters, this is not an emergency, but it is wise to schedule a complete eye exam to assure that everything is OK. The good news is that if you do have symptoms that suggest a possible retinal detachment, most cases are due to something less serious retinal detachment, but the only way to be sure is to have the eye examination.
Are some people more likely to have a retinal detachment than others?
Yes, if you have a history of a retinal detachment in the other eye, or are very near-sighted, or both, then you are at higher risk of retinal detachment.
Is a retinal detachment rare?
Somewhat. The average person has about a 1 in 300 chance of having a retinal detachment in his or her lifetime. This may seem unlikely, but ophthalmologists see a lot of these because there are a lot of patients.
Find out more
As always, your best course of action is to undergo periodic eye examinations to detect conditions that may predispose you to a retinal detachment.
Mitchell Gossman, MD., and Andrea Joplin, MD., are ophthalmologists at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and see patients from all over Central Minnesota and the St. Cloud area. They accept new patients, and appointments may be made at 320-774-3789.