A healthy retina is essential for good vision. Like everything else in our eyes and bodies, however, our retinas are at risk for developing tears or holes that could ultimately lead to vision loss.
What is the retina, and how does it help us see?
The retina is a layer of very thin, light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye cavity. It plays an important role in the complex and amazing process that results in sight.
First, light enters the eye, then passes through the iris to the retina. The retina contains millions of cells called rods and cones, whose job it is to organize visual data and send it to the brain via the optic nerve.
What would cause a retina to tear?
A retinal tear is like a small break in this lining. Oftentimes, tears are perfectly normal and can be the result of aging.
Our eye cavities are filled with what’s called the vitreous, a gel-like substance that helps give your eye its round shape. This gel deteriorates somewhat as we age and pulls away from the back of the eye. This is called posterior vitreous detachment or PVD, and happens to everyone as part of the aging process. But retinal tears can occur at the same time that the vitreous separates.
A tear can be serious because it can lead to retinal detachment, a complete separation of the retina from the back of the eye that can cause permanent loss of vision if not treated right away.
Although aging is the typical culprit, it’s not unheard of for young people to experience a torn or detached retina. That’s because retinal tears or detachments can also happen as a result of trauma to the eye.
Symptoms to watch for
A retinal tear doesn’t cause pain, and you may not experience any symptoms at all.
Some people who have an acute retinal tear see floaters — spots, blots, or lines — in the affected eye. Seeing floaters can be a common experience and doesn’t necessarily mean you have a torn retina. However, you should be sure to let your eye doctor know about the floaters as soon as you can, so he or she can rule out retinal detachment.
If the floaters are accompanied by flashes of light or a dark shadow or “curtain” in your peripheral vision, you are at risk of retinal detachment and should see your eye doctor or go to the emergency room right away. Most retinal detachments lead to permanent blindness.
As we’ve said, anyone can develop a retinal tear. But there are some risk factors that may make you more prone to a tear or detachment:
- Getting older
- Being nearsighted
- Having thin patches in the retina (called associated lattice degeneration)
- Family history
- Prior eye surgery
- Prior trauma
Diagnosis and treatment
Your eye doctor will apply slight pressure to the eye in a procedure called scleral depression and use a three-mirror lens to discover whether or not you have a retinal tear or detachment. You may also receive an ophthalmic ultrasound.
Catching a tear before it progresses to a detachment is important to protecting your vision. While not all tears require treatment, those that do can be treated with a laser or cryotherapy, both as outpatient procedures.
We’re always here to answer your questions about eye health and safety. If you have concerns about your vision or are experiencing symptoms of a retinal tear or detachment, contact us to schedule an eye exam right away.