Diagnosing Retinal Detachment

NYU Langone ophthalmologists identify retinal detachment during an eye exam. In this condition, the retina—the light-sensitive layer of nerve tissue located in the back of the eye—peels away from the underlying supportive tissue. The affected portion of retina is therefore detached from its supply of blood and oxygen. 

Without treatment, you may experience irreversible vision loss. Retinal detachment is considered an urgent medical condition requiring prompt treatment. The condition usually affects only one eye. 

A healthy retina is essential for vision. Nerve cells in the retina detect light as it enters the eye and send signals to the brain that indicate what the eye is seeing. If the retina detaches, it can become so damaged that it no longer functions properly. The result can range from blurred vision to significant vision loss. Fortunately, early treatment can help preserve your vision.

Signs and Symptoms of Retinal Detachment

Certain signs and symptoms are associated with retinal detachment, but the condition is very often painless. You may experience flashes of light, a sudden loss of peripheral (side) or central vision, and a feeling of heaviness in the eye.

Another common symptom is a sudden appearance of or an increase in floaters. Floaters are specks and spots that move across your field of vision. They may take on many shapes and sizes, appearing as tiny dots, strands, or cobwebs. 

Floaters that have not suddenly appeared or that have not increased in number are usually not a cause for concern. They occur naturally with age, most often due to a change in the vitreous. When the vitreous liquefies, pieces of gel clump together and float in your eye, casting shadows, or floaters. Floaters may occur as a result of head or eye trauma, and they may be more prevalent among people who are nearsighted. If you develop new or changing floaters, however, you should see an ophthalmologist for an eye exam.

If you notice any symptoms of retinal detachment, see your ophthalmologist right away.

Risk Factors for Retinal Detachment

Retinal detachment can occur at any age, but it is most common in people older than 40. Risk factors include having severe myopia—or nearsightedness—or prior surgery for cataract, a condition in which there is a clouding of the lens inside the eye. You may also be more susceptible if you have a family history of retinal detachment or have had recent eye trauma.

People with tears or breaks in the retina usually don’t experience retinal detachment, but it can happen if the vitreous seeps through a tear and settles beneath the retina, causing it to peel away from underlying tissue. 

Diagnostic Tests

NYU Langone ophthalmologists diagnose a retinal detachment during a routine eye exam. Your doctor may first ask about your symptoms and any recent changes in your vision.

During the exam, your ophthalmologist puts drops in your eye to dilate, or widen, the pupil, giving the doctor a clear view of the lens of the eye, as well as the retina. Your doctor may also use an ophthalmoscope, an instrument with a bright light and special magnifying lenses, to examine your retina for any holes or tears.

If your doctor finds a retinal tear, you are at an increased risk of developing retinal detachment. Your doctor may choose to seal the hole to prevent a detachment. If you have a retinal detachment, several treatment options are available to prevent permanent damage or vision loss.

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