Detached Retina Symptoms: A Patient's Point of View
Detached retina symptoms can erupt literally in a flash—and with a flash.
Picture driving 70 miles an hour on the highway when suddenly the shape of a dark, gray disc pops into view in the left eye.
The disc sits in the lower corner of the eyesight and displays a jagged, flashing halo of light around it. A glance to the left moves the disc to the left as well and into the center of the eye. The disc now blocks an even larger part of the vision.
Panic is not a good option at 70 miles an hour on an interstate highway.
Someone who has experienced retinal tear symptoms and surgery may not panic. They will likely know from their doctors that a detachment can result from a tear.
That person’s best option is pulling off the highway onto an exit, stopping at a safe location and immediately calling an eye doctor, also known as an opthamologist.
If he or she does not, permanent loss of vision may result. More than 90 percent of all detached retina patients have successful surgery, but surgery does not always lead to the same level of vision as before, according to the National Eye Institute.
Warning Sign: Retina Tear Symptoms
Fortunately, I knew it was a detached retina before I talked to my eye doctor.
I had experienced two retinal tears in my right eye requiring laser surgery and was aware of the possibility of a detachment. Tears often lead to detachments.
Both tears arrived at the same time in my right eye. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says that retinal tear symptoms include:
A sudden increase in size and number of floaters.
A sudden appearance of flashes.
A gray curtain across the field of vision (which also is a detachment symptom).
In my case, the floaters consisted of both blood spots and batches of translucent tissue. I could easily see flashes of light, especially in darkness.
Retina Tear Causes
Most of the causes and risk factors are well known. Various sources agree they include some combination of:
- Family history
- Previous eye surgery
- Previous severe eye injury or disease
One of my doctors also said eyes with an oblong shape also may be a factor. But they were a bit baffled by the number of my problems compared to other people -- ultimately, four tears and one detachment.
The aging process is a major factor in retinal tear symptoms. As we grow older, the vitreous in our eyeballs begins to change consistency and pull away from the retina. If the vitreous pulls away too abruptly, it can cause a tear.
If left untreated, fluid from the vitreous can seep into the space behind the retina and force it outward, creating a detachment and a serious potential for blindness.
I was aware of retinal tear symptoms in my right eye including floaters and flashes of light, so I sought treatment for that eye. My doctor used a laser to heal the tears.
Although I saw an increase in floaters in my left eye, I did not notice any flashes and did not think I had a tear. (I have had many floaters for many years.)
This mistake has led to a major physical and financial cost.
In one interesting moment, I regained enough consciousness that I could see a needle inside my eye.
Detached Retina Surgery
A detached retina is much more severe and can result in partial or full loss of vision. Detachments themselves can be partial or full. Surgery is much more serious and is necessary as soon as possible after the diagnosis.
The surgery is brief (mine lasted 45 minutes) and takes place in an outpatient facility. In many cases, the patient receives enough anesthesia to stay unconscious during the procedure.
The type of surgery depends on the characteristics of the detachment, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
For a scleral buckle, the surgeon places a flexible band around the eye to act against the form that is pulling the retina out of its proper place.
For a pneumatic retinopexy, the doctor injects a gas bubble into the vitreous inside the eye. The bubble pushes the retinal tear against the back of the eye’s wall.
For a vitrectomy, the surgeon will drain the vitreous and replace it with a gas bubble. The body’s fluids will eventually replace the gas bubble.
I underwent the vitrectomy procedure in a surgical environment rather than the ophthalmologist’s office. I was not conscious for most of the surgery because of light anesthesia.
In one interesting moment, I regained enough consciousness that I could see a needle inside my eye. The doctor was using it to inject the gas bubble. When I pointed out that I could see the needle, an increase in anesthesia immediately put me back into unconsciousness.
Detached Retina Recovery
Recovery begins with bandages over the eye for the next one to two days. When the doctor removes the bandages, vision in the repaired eye seems like staring through a thick glass jar because of the gas bubble in the middle of the vision. Normal vision is not possible right away.
The eye may be red and swollen for several days after the surgery. Doctors strongly recommend against any physical activity until the gas bubble goes away.
It took more than two weeks for the gas bubble in my eye to shrink until it vanished altogether. In the meantime, I couldn’t use my left eye for reading or anything else. I also had to use two types of eye drops multiple times a day to speed recovery.
“After successful surgery for retinal detachment, vision may take many months to improve and, in some cases, may never return fully. Unfortunately, some patients do not recover any vision.
"The more severe the detachment, the less vision may return. For this reason, it is very important to see your ophthalmologist regularly or at the first sign of any trouble with your vision,” the AAO says.
The gas bubble for a vitrectomy also has another important result. It is critical that the patient does not travel in high altitudes because changes in air pressure may impact the bubble and cause serious complications including blindness.
Other potential complications include:
- Formation of a cataract
- Recurrence of the detachment
Within weeks of the surgery, my doctor in a followup appointment found that a cataract was forming quickly and impairing my vision even more. As a result, I had to schedule cataract surgery.
Detached Retina Cost
Patients with high-deductible health insurance will want to know how much detached retina surgery will cost.
Costs depend on the provider, location and other factors. In my case, the numbers broke down this way:
- Surgery - $1,769
- Facility fee - $1,659
- Anesthesiologist - $604
- Appointments - 250
- Total - $4,282
I found the numbers above online after my surgery but before getting the insurance bills. After I wrote this article, we received a hospital bill for $17,000 for the 45-minute use of their outpatient facility.
Our insurance company said that facility wasn't in our network, even though the doctor's office said it was in the network. Ultimately, we had to pay the bill, but the hospital eventually reduced the cost to only $1,600 after negotiations and founding out that we had to pay rather than the insurance company.
Always check with the insurance company about whether it covers as separate fees the doctor, the anesthesiologist and the facility where the surgery takes place.
Disclaimer: This article is based on my own personal experience of retinal tears and a detached retina. It is not meant as medical advice. If you experience unusual symptoms with your eyes, see a doctor immediately.
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© 2016 Scott S Bateman