Retinal detachment: Do you know your risks for this eye blinding condition?

Retinal detachment can cause permanent blindness.  

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Do you sometimes experience the appearance of many floaters — tiny specks that seem to drift through your field of vision? Do you have flashes of light in one or both eyes?

It's normal to see a few floaters, small dark spots or squiggly lines in your vision, but if the frequency increases, you may want to get your eyes checked immediately.

Retinal detachment presents with painless symptoms but if left untreated, it can cause permanent blindness. It is one of the least publicised eye conditions and, therefore often overlooked by patients until it is too late.

Owing to the low publicity, many theories about the causes of retinal detachment have unsurprisingly emerged. Some chalk down the causes to age, gender and even sexually transmitted infections.

Oscar Muwale Onyango, a vitreoretinal surgeon at Kenyatta National Hospital, however, says while there are medical conditions that may make some people vulnerable to developing retinal detachment, sexually transmitted infections are not among them. Simply, he says, it occurs when the retina, a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye is pulled away from its normal position.

"You can have a hole where the fluid in the front of the retina (vitreous humour) can go into that hole and separate the retina from the underlying structure. That's what detaches the retina. When the retina is detached, it can no longer function, and vision is lost," says Dr Muwale.

This condition can happen to anyone, regardless of age.

“Anyone can get a detached retina, but some people are at higher risk. If you or someone in your family has experienced a detached retina before, you are at a higher risk of retinal detachment,” says Dr Muwale.

Additionally, he notes, that if you've had a serious eye injury or eye surgery, such as cataract surgery, you are also at a higher risk.

"If you have an eye injury or trauma, such as something hitting your eye, it's important to see an eye doctor to check for early signs of retinal detachment," he says.

Other eye problems that may increase your risk include diabetic retinopathy, a condition that affects the blood vessels in the retina in people with diabetes, and extreme nearsightedness, particularly a severe type called degenerative myopia.

Other causes are kidney disease and inflammation in the retina. Eye diseases, including retinoschisis, when the retina separates into two layers or lattice degeneration, also increase your odds of developing retina detachment.

Dr Muwale adds that premature birth - When a baby is born before 32 weeks of gestation also heightens the risk as babies tend to undergo strenuous processes to save their lives, including being put on oxygen for prolonged periods, and undergoing blood transfusions, which delay the maturation of their retina.

Types of detachment

Dr Muwale identifies three types of retinal detachment including rhegmatogenous, tractional, and exudative. Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment is the most common type and can occur due to a small tear or break in the retina.

“If your retina has a tear or break, the vitreous, which is the gel-like fluid in the centre of your eye, can get behind your retina,” he says.

This causes the vitreous to push your retina away from the back of your eye and leads to detachment.

Tractional retinal detachment occurs when scar tissue on your retina pulls your retina away from the back of your eye.

The most common cause of tractional retinal detachment is diabetic retinopathy, which is an eye condition that damages the blood vessels in your retina, leading to scarring. As the scars grow larger, they can pull on your retina and cause it to detach from the back of your eye.

Exudative retinal detachment happens when fluid builds up behind your retina, but there is no tear or break in the retina.

“Depending on the extent of the detachment and the type of retinal detachment you have, your eye doctor may recommend different types of surgery to repair any tears or breaks in your retina and reattach it to the back of your eye. Some of the options include laser surgery and cryotherapy,” says Dr Muwale.

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