If you’re like most people, you’ve probably had a visual “floater” or two. It’s usually nothing to worry about. But a sudden shower of black specks, flashes of light or the appearance of a cobweb can signal a retinal tear or detachment. That’s a more serious vision problem that can result in blindness.
Your retina, the light-sensitive nerve layer that lines the back of your eyeball, produces pictures from rays of light that enter your eyes. “A retinal detachment occurs when the retina is pulled away from its normal position, like peeling back wallpaper,” says ophthalmologist and retina specialist Maz Kazahaya, MD, with Lehigh Valley Health Network.
A retinal tear is the most common cause of detachment. Eye injuries, hereditary retinal thinning or extreme nearsightedness all can cause a rip to occur in this thin lining. Retinal tears are most common in older adults. As you age, the vitreous (the gel-like fluid that fills the eye) naturally shrinks and can pull away from the retina, causing tears or holes. If left untreated, the vitreous gel can flow through these holes, collect beneath the retina and cause it to separate from the back of the eye.
Eye disease, tumors and complications from cataract surgery also can lead to retinal detachment. “Some hereditary conditions, like thin retinas, can lead to a detached retina,” Kazahaya says “However, thinning of the retina is the most common cause. People with diabetes develop a different kind of detached retina from scar tissue. New blood vessels growing in the back of the eye can lead to bleeding and scarring on the surface of the retina. That leads to traction on the retina, which causes detachment.”
In people under age 40, trauma to the eye, like a direct shot to the eye while playing a sport, is the most common cause of detachment.
Detecting a retinal tear as early as possible is the best way to protect your vision. If you’re very nearsighted or your doctor has said you’re predisposed to retinal thinning, get a dilated eye exam at least yearly, Kazahaya says. Otherwise, have your eyes checked every two years if you’re under age 60, and every year if you’re over 60 or wear glasses.