Introduction 

Retinal detachment occurs when the thin lining at the back of your eye called the retina begins to pull away from the blood vessels that supply it with oxygen and nutrients.

Without prompt treatment, it will lead to blindness in the affected eye. 

Warning signs and symptoms

Most people will experience warning signs that indicate their retina is at risk of detaching before they lose their sight. These include:

  • the sudden appearance of floaters – black dots, specks or streaks that float across your field of vision (usually only one eye is affected)
  • a cobweb effect of lots of little floaters – others report a single large black floater that looks like a housefly
  • sudden short flashes of light in the affected eye lasting no more than a second
  • blurring or distortion of your vision

Without treatment, sight in the affected eye will start to deteriorate. Most people describe this as a shadow or "black curtain" spreading across their vision.

Retinal detachment usually only occurs in one eye. If your eye is affected, there is an up to one in 10 chance that retinal detachment will happen in your other eye.

When to seek medical advice

Contact your GP immediately if you get any of these warning signs. If this is not possible, telephone NHS 111 or your local out-of-hours service for advice.

Causes

The retina lies at the back of your eye and sends signals to the brain, allowing it to see. Without a blood supply, the nerve cells die which leads to a loss of sight.

Retinal detachment is most often the result of the retina becoming thinner and more brittle with age and pulling away from the underlying blood vessels.

It can also be caused by a direct injury to the eye, but this is less common.

Read more about the causes of retinal detachment.

Diagnosis

If your GP suspects retinal detachment, it is likely you will be referred to an eye specialist (ophthalmologist), usually on the same day.

The ophthalmologist will study the back of your eye with an ophthalmoscope (a magnifying glass connected to a light) and a slit lamp (a microscope that magnifies the eye while you rest your head on a chin rest). If there is a poor view of the retina, an ultrasound scan may also be used. 

Treatment

The quicker retinal detachment is treated, the less risk there is of permanently losing some or all of your vision in the affected eye.

Most detached retinas can be successfully reattached with surgery. There are a number of different types of surgery available, depending on the individual.

It can take months to fully recover from surgery on your eye. During this period you may have reduced vision, which means you may not be able to do some of your usual activities, such as driving or flying.

Some people's eyesight does not fully return after surgery and they have permanently reduced peripheral (side) or central vision. This can happen even if the retina is reattached successfully. This risk is higher the longer the detachment was left untreated.

Read more about treating retinal detachment and recovering from retinal detachment surgery.

Who is affected?

Retinal detachment is rare. Only one in every 10,000 people will develop it in any given year in the UK.

As retinal detachment is associated with ageing, most cases affect older adults aged between 60 and 70. Retinal detachment caused by an injury can affect people of any age, including children.




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Driving

If you have a retinal detachment, it could affect your ability to drive. It is your legal obligation to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) about a medical condition that could have an impact on your driving ability. 

Find out about driving and medical conditions on the GOV.UK website.

Page last reviewed: 09/01/2015

Next review due: 09/01/2017