Retinal detachments occur when the light-sensitive layer (retina), which allows us to see, detaches from its surrounding tissue below. They are a medical emergency as they can result in permanent visual loss and resultant blindness.

We know that some people are more predisposed to having a retinal detachment, with some signs being:

  • Short-sightedness (myopia)
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Age-related degeneration
  • History of previous retinal detachments
  • Previous ophthalmic surgery
  • Trauma

However, retinal detachments often occur spontaneously and the best way to prevent it from worsening is to recognise its warning signs.

Floaters

Floaters are very common, especially as we get older. The shape of our eyeball is partly held open by a viscous “jelly-like” structure called the vitreous. As we age, this vitreous breaks down and people often report seeing more floaters, sometimes depicting “cobwebs”, “bugs”, or “spots” that change position with eye movement. These floaters may be part of normal aging changes. However, it is particularly important to notice a sudden increase in floaters that look like numerous small black dots as this may indicate a retinal break.

Flashing lights

The vitreous is attached to parts of the retina, and if it pulls on the sensitive retina, will result in flashing lights. Sometimes these lights may only be visible at night, or may appear to flash in the shape of an arc at the side of your vision. If the vitreous pulls and tears the retina, this is known as a retinal break, and you will very likely notice flashing lights even in broad daylight. If a retinal break occurs, the vitreous can track behind the break and a retinal detachment will occur.

Blurred or missing vision

When a retinal detachment occurs, you may notice your vision suddenly blur, or even disappear in a certain area (scotoma). People who have had a retinal detachment often report seeing a peripheral “black veil or curtain”, where no vision through is visible. If you notice this, it is very important to seek immediate medical attention. You may require an urgent operation to stop the retinal detachment from worsening.

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