Retinal Tears and Detachments

The retina is the layer of light-sensitive tissue that covers the back of the eye. When light enters the eye, it passes through the lens and focuses on the retina. The retina then transmits the images to the brain via the optic nerve. If the retina starts to separate from its supportive tissue, it can tear and eventually detach. Unless the retina is quickly reattached, severe vision loss will occur.

What is a retinal tear?

Retinal tears and detachment occur when the retina is separated from its supportive tissue. The back portion of the eye is filled with a clear gel called vitreous fluid, which is attached to the retina. As the vitreous fluid moves around and changes shape, it may start to pull on the retina, causing symptoms like flashing lights. If the pulling continues, it can eventually tear the retina. Once the retina is torn, fluid may start to seep between the retina and the back of the eye, causing the retina to lift off and detach. Because the retina cannot function when it is detached from the back of the eye, vision will become blurry and shadowy.

Symptoms of a retinal tear or detachment

The first warning signs of a torn or detached retina are: 

  • Blurry vision 
  • Shadowy vision 

Sudden onset of: 

  • Spots 
  • Flashes of light 
  • Floaters in vision

There is no pain associated with retinal tears and detachment, but the sudden decrease in vision can be a frightening experience nonetheless. Some of these symptoms on their own are not indicative of a serious eye problem; however, when they appear suddenly in a group it is best to see an eye doctor immediately.

Causes of a retinal tear or detachment

Damage to the retina seems to be linked with the aging process. The risk of retinal tears and detachment increases as we get older because vitreous fluid tends to shrink and change shape as we age. For most people, changes to vitreous fluid will not produce retinal damage. Some of the risk factors associated with retinal tears and detachment include: 

  • Family history of retinal detachment 
  • Previous eye injury 
  • Diabetes 
  • Eye surgeries (including LASIK and cataract surgery) 
  • High levels of nearsightedness

Treatment of a retinal tear or detachment

Retinal damage must be treated quickly to prevent permanent loss of vision. Small retinal tears can be treated with laser surgery or cryopexy, both of which are designed to seal off the borders of the tear. Larger retinal detachments usually need to be repaired surgically.

If you experience a sudden change in your vision, visit your eye doctor as soon as possible.


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