About a year ago, I noticed changes in my vision. Even though I already had enough floaters—dark spots moving across my vision—to entertain me whenever a conversation slowed down, I detected more than usual over the course of several days. It also seemed that the floaters were a bit darker. Then one morning, I started seeing flashes of light like small starbursts in the corner of my eye.
The previous year I had undergone cataract surgery in both eyes. At 55, I was considered young to have my vision affected by cataracts and had been warned by my ophthalmologist that I was now at higher risk for retinal detachment because of the surgery. If I had any increase in floaters or experienced flashing lights, I was to call him immediately. I did, and when he examined both my eyes, he spotted two small holes in the retina of my left eye, which can lead to a retinal tear. He promptly performed laser surgery in his office to repair the hole, and told me not to worry.
Luckily, I’d caught the problem early. Not fixing a retinal hole or tear can lead to a retinal detachment, which, if left untreated, can cause blindness.
What is Retinal Detachment?
The retina is the inside layer of the back of the eyeball. It turns light into signals that the brain interprets as images. Retinal detachment occurs when the retina detaches from the back of the eye wall. David Maberley, MD, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia, says that often as people age, the vitreous jelly that fills the back of the eye can shrink. “There’s research showing hormonal changes may affect the collapse of vitreous gel.” If it shrinks suddenly, it can tear the retina. Liquid from the vitreous jelly may squeeze through the hole or tear, lifting up the retina and peeling it away from the back wall of the eye.
Who’s At Risk of Retinal Detachment?
Retinal detachment occurs in one in 10,000 people each year, affects men more than women and can happen at any age, but is more common for people over 40. You are at higher risk if you’re nearsighted or if you’ve had cataract surgery. Being hit in the eye can also detach the retina.
Common Symptoms of Retinal Detachment
While many people have floaters (an indication the vitreous jelly is starting to break down), usually it’s not something to worry about. It’s a sudden increase in the number of floaters that requires immediate medical attention. See your doctor if you notice symptoms such as flashes, a shadow in peripheral vision, the appearance of a grey “curtain” moving across the eye or a sudden decrease in vision.
September 2011 issue of Best Health magazine.