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Do You Know the Symptoms of Retinal Detachment?

By Marcia Mangum Cronin

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Vision loss is scary, especially for people like me whose livelihoods depend on good vision. I recently had successful emergency laser surgery to prevent a retinal tear and possible retinal detachment, and I'm sharing my experience to help others recognize the symptoms that could save your vision.

Saturday night I started seeing flashes of light that looked like lightning. They popped up on the right side of my field of vision and sort of leaped at a right angle across the top of my sight. Each flash was quick, and the time between flashes varied.

I thought it might be a migraine aura, but I've had those in the past, and this seemed different. My auras last precisely 20 to 23 minutes and appear like a tunnel of light. These looked different and continued well beyond 20 minutes.

Because I was riding in the backseat of a car with my younger daughter driving on very dark, unfamiliar, winding rural roads in the rain, I didn't want to say anything that might add to anyone's stress. So I alternately closed my eyes to avoid seeing the light and searched on my phone for what could be causing the flashes.

My online searches, using reliable sites like the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, revealed that light flashes are a symptom of a retinal tear or detachment. A retinal detachment can occur when the vitreous, a gel-like fluid inside the eye, leaks through a retinal hole or tear and collects beneath the retina at the back of the eye. This causes the retina to pull away from the blood vessels that provide it with oxygen and nourishment, resulting in vision loss. Retinal detachment is an emergency because the longer it goes untreated, the greater your risk of vision loss.

The vitreous normally shrinks and detaches as we age and doesn't cause problems, other than pesky floaters (specks of debris that seem to float through your vision). But, if the vitreous doesn't detach easily and instead tugs on the retina, it can cause tears. That's why it's important to know what to look for to avoid retinal detachment.

Symptoms of retinal tears or detachment include:

  • Light flashes
  • Sudden appearance of many floaters
  • A shadow or curtain over part of your visual field (usually this comes as detachment progresses; thank goodness mine didn't go that far)


So, when we got home around 7 o'clock Saturday night, I told my family what was going on. I wasn't certain from the websites how urgent the situation was—whether I should go to the ER, call a doctor or take it easy and wait until Monday.

My two daughters quickly decided that I should call a medical professional for clarification, especially since the next day was Sunday and I wouldn't be able to see my eye doctor until Monday at the earliest. My husband told me it wouldn't do any good to go to the emergency room—advice my eye doctor later confirmed, because the eyes need to be dilated by an ophthalmologist to be examined.

I found my ophthalmologists' phone number online and discovered that they have an after-hours emergency number, which I dialed. I was put directly through to the on-call doctor. He listened to my symptoms and asked a few questions, such as how long I'd been seeing the flashes (2.5 hours), my age (60) and whether I was nearsighted (yes, slightly) or had diabetes (no).

Risk factors for retinal detachment include:

  • Aging (it is more common in people over age 40)
  • Previous retinal detachment or eye surgery
  • Family history
  • Extreme nearsightedness
  • Previous severe eye injury or trauma
  • Previous eye disease or disorder

The doctor asked if I could meet him at the office at 9 p.m. (seriously, 9 o'clock on a Saturday night!). I felt a little relieved and a little scared—relieved that someone was available to look at my eyes at night on a weekend and scared that either something would be wrong with my vision or that it wouldn't and this would all be a very expensive false alarm.

My husband and I and the doctor and an assistant arrived at about 8:45, and he took me in to dilate and examine my eyes. After a first look, he said he didn't see anything obvious, but there was one area he wanted to take a closer look at. So, he applied more numbing drops and stuck a magnifying lens on my right eyeball, held in place by what he scientifically described as goop.

After closer examination, he said the vitreous fluid in my right eye was trying to detach but was not separating easily and was tugging on the back of my retina, which showed signs of compromise and weak spots—on the verge of tearing.

He said I had two options: I could do nothing (a very, very bad option, he said) or I could have laser surgery to repair it—immediately. Because I very much value my vision, I opted for laser surgery.

Undergoing laser surgery
He got everything ready, put a powerful lens back on my eyeball and told me to keep my forehead and chin pressed against the stabilizing bars and keep my head as still as possible. He warned me that the laser might give a sensation of heat or pressure, but no real pain.

Then he began zapping my eyeball with a laser. The laser makes tiny burns around the tears or weak spots to create scarring that "welds" the retina to the underlying tissue. I could feel both warmth and pressure from the laser, but the worst sensation for me was the feeling of bright light in my eye. I felt like I'd closed my eye to block out the light, but, in reality, the lens kept the eye open. I'm not sure how many times he zapped my retina or how long it took, but the whole procedure was relatively quick and painless.

He told me that no postsurgical care or recuperation was required because there was no cutting, no pain, no risk of infection. (Mayo Clinic says you may be advised to refrain from vigorous activities for a couple of weeks to allow the bonds to strengthen, but I was not told to take it easy.) My doctor said I might continue to see occasional flashes for a while as the vitreous fluid continued to separate (which I did), but there should be no more danger of retinal tears or detachment.

Almost exactly an hour after I entered the office on a Saturday night, I was on my way home with my vision problem corrected and my vision intact.

What I've learned through this is that early diagnosis is critical to preventing retinal detachment and possible permanent vision loss. It's important to get your eyes checked annually, especially as you age or if you have other risk factors for retinal detachment. Talk to your eye care professional if you aren't sure about your risk.

And if you notice any symptoms of a possible retinal tear or detachment, call your eye doctor immediately. The procedures to repair retinal detachment are more complex than what I had, and success is not guaranteed.

I am grateful to my job at HealthyWomen for making me more aware of taking care of my health and paying attention to symptoms. I'm grateful to my daughters for encouraging me to seek immediate care. I'm grateful to my husband for taking me to the doctor's and keeping me calm. And I'm especially grateful that the on-call ophthalmologist was willing to record the rest of the football playoffs he was watching and come in on a Saturday night to take care of my vision. 

Comments

I had my follow-up eye appointment today and all looks good for me. I did get a little more info to share. My doctor says 90% of people with symptoms similar to mine (light flashes or sudden floaters) will not have problems with retinal tears or detachment. The vitreous will just naturally separate and everything is fine. But, it's important to get it checked out, because if the vitreous pulls on the back of the retina, as mine was doing, it can quickly lead to a tear and then a detachment, which can be difficult to repair and often causes some permanent vision loss in that eye.

Some people have asked me how quickly that could occur. The doctor says they don't know the answer to that -- my tear could've occurred 10 minutes after I saw him, or possibly 10 hours or 10 days. But, he reiterated that it is important to call an eye doctor immediately if symptoms suddenly appear. And, if you're already seeing the dark curtain over your vision, the retina has probably already attached. Don't wait for that.

You have a LOT to be grateful for - so glad you were smart enough to take immediate action. And thanks for the comprehensive and very important information.

Thanks, Sheryl. Very fortunate indeed.

Just wanted to concur with this article....get help immediately. An aquaintance of mine, mentioned to me she was having these flashes of light in her eye. I called a family member, who was an eye doctor, for his opinion on what she should do. He told me to tell her to see someone immediately, as it could be symptom of detachment of retina.
She was having many other issues at the time and kept postphoning a checkup.
I told her I would drive her there if she would make appointment, to any doctor she wanted. She finally went, and then had to go to an eye surgeon- as it WAS
a detachment....and now she is legally blind in that eye.....So...please ladies- don't make every excuse in the world to not take care of yourself...and take time to stay healthy.

Just read what this women was experiencing,and it describes my situation exactly-even our age,both 60-i have made a appointment with a eye doctor that takes Medicaid-in the vision center of all places,my old Walmart that I gave 8 years to and discharged from! And the end result ending up homeless when money ran out-and not wearing my glasses my those two years...Keep paying the penalty of being fired from that store- now I'm depending on them to help save my eye sight...Very scared of pain ,eye loss and procedures depending on how bad it is...So alone no family..And praying tomorrow isn't as bad as it is in my mind! They don't even take Medicaid to buy new glasses only a prescription for new glasses..Wish Trump could feel the fear people like me feel when they are not equipped to handle the financial burden to protect their health,let alone their fears,when he's messing around with health insurance...Thanks for listening...Debby

Hi Marcia, Your information was very helpful and I went through the same thing. I've been having floaters for some time now, but started having flashes of light in the corner of my left eye. I made an appointment to see a Opthamologist to have it checked and she saw something, so she referred me to a Retinal Specialists and he confirmed that I had tear. He tried to do the Laser treatment, but the tear was too far out, so he did a Cryotherapy instead and welded the area that was torn to prevent a retinal detachment. He also told me that I will still see flashes and I do and it should eventually stop. I had some traction in my right eye, so the doctor did a Laser treatment just in case I would have a tear. He released me since no further treatments were needed and everything looked fine. I'm going to follow up with my Opthamologist in six months. Even if you have 20/20 vision like me still have your eyes checked and if you notice anything symptoms go have it checked with your eye doctor. I hope I don't have another tear and I do know what to look for.

My handicapped brother has a bad habit of rubbing and poking at his eyes. They have been bothering him more than ever now and we are wondering if he has a problem with his retinas. It is good to know that laser surgery can prevent a retinal tear. It would be good to avoid possible retinal detachment. We will look into these options for my brother.

I had cataract surgery last year and recently started seeing both a floater and flashes of light. Went immediately to my opthamologist who did many tests including the magnifying lens, and saw nothing. He said it was likely the vitreous shrinking and rubbing the retina, but saw nothing that needed repairing. After reading your article however, I am wondering if there could be weak spots on the verge on tearing, and am also wondering if I should seek a second opinion from a retina specialist. Any thoughts on this?

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