The retina is the innermost layer of the eye, and it features many light-sensitive photoreceptor cells. These cells detect light and convert it into electrical signals, which travel through the optic nerve to the brain, resulting in sight. Retinal disorders affect the retina and typically result in visual problems.

The human eye is a specialized organ that reacts to light and allows people to see. The eye has many structures that enable vision, including the retina.

Retinal disorders are conditions that affect any part of the retina. Some can mildly affect a person’s vision, while others may lead to blindness. However, it may be possible to prevent most retinal disorders if an eye doctor identifies the condition early and provides appropriate treatment.

If a person is experiencing problems with their retina, they may need to see an ophthalmologist. This is a medical professional who specializes in ophthalmology, or eye care. In particular, a person may need to visit an eye doctor who specializes in conditions that affect the retina. This specialty is known as vitreoretinal medicine.

This article discusses some common retinal disorders and when to contact a doctor.

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Some common retinal problems may include the following.

Retinal tear

A retinal tear happens when there is a tear or hole in the retina. This typically occurs when the vitreous, which is a jelly-like substance in the eye, attaches to the retina and pulls hard enough to tear it. This can happen when the vitreous detaches as part of the aging process, or it can result from trauma.

Retinal tears can cause blurry vision, the sudden onset of floaters, or flashes of light.

It is important for people to receive treatment for a retinal tear, as it may result in retinal detachment. This is a more serious condition that affects vision.

Retinal detachment

Retinal detachment occurs when a buildup of fluid, which usually enters through a retinal tear, causes the retina to detach from the choroid, which is the eye layer that provides it with oxygen and nutrients.

Retinal detachment is a medical emergency that, without treatment, may lead to permanent vision loss.

Retinopathy

Retinopathy results from damage to the blood vessels at the back of the eye, which causes fluid to leak. This accumulation of fluid can affect the retina and result in changes to vision. Conditions that can cause retinopathy include diabetes, hypertension, and cancer.

Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes, with evidence suggesting that it is a leading cause of blindness among adults in the United States.

Epiretinal membranes

Epiretinal membranes (ERMs), also called macular puckers or cellophane maculopathy, make up a thin layer that forms on the retina’s inner surface. It is usually scar tissue from a medical condition or injury.

ERMs often do not cause symptoms, except when they affect the macula or the center of the retina, which is important in perceiving visual details and features. A person may notice distortion of their central vision.

Macular hole

Similar to retinal tears, macular holes are small breaks in the macula that occur due to an unusual pulling between the vitreous and the retina.

Aging is the most common cause of macular holes. Eye injuries may also result in macular holes.

Macular degeneration

Because macular degeneration is more common among older adults, eye doctors usually call it age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

With this condition, the macula deteriorates and causes distorted central vision, which may worsen over time and cause permanent vision loss. One 2021 study suggests that macular degeneration is the most common retinal disorder in the U.S.

Retinitis

Retinitis refers to the inflammation of the retina. It usually results from viruses and bacteria. For example, Lyme disease, syphilis, and Dengue fever may cause retinitis.

Autoimmune conditions, such as Beh?et’s disease and lupus, may also cause this condition.

Retinitis pigmentosa

Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare genetic degenerative condition that causes a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. This can cause a progressive loss of vision.

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastoma, which is a cancer of the retina, is the most common type of eye cancer in infants and young children. According to the American Cancer Society, around 200–300 children in the U.S. receive a diagnosis of the condition every year.

A common symptom is the lack of red reflex in the pupil when the child is having a photo taken.

Macular edema

Macular edema is a condition that occurs due to fluids building up in the macula, causing it to swell.

Several conditions can cause macular edema, including AMD, diabetes, and retinal vein occlusion.

Retinal vein occlusion

Retinal vein occlusion, or eye stroke, is a blood vessel disorder wherein branches of the retinal vein become occluded, causing fluid and blood to spill onto the retina.

The blockage cuts off circulation, which can cause nerve cells to die, leading to vision loss.

Retinal disorders can share a number of similar symptoms, which may include:

  • seeing flashes of light
  • the sudden appearance of floaters
  • changes in vision
  • blurry vision or a loss of vision in some areas of the visual field
  • reduced central or side (peripheral) vision
  • a sudden loss of vision
  • changes in color perception
  • difficulty seeing at night
  • difficulty adjusting to light changes

Many different factors may contribute to the development of retinal disorders.

For example, one 2020 study highlights that increasing age, conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, and prior eye surgery can increase the risk of developing retinal problems. Additionally, having a family history of retinal disorders can also increase a person’s likelihood of developing one.

It may also be beneficial for individuals to protect their overall health and take care of their eyes. This could involve making lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and quitting smoking.

People may also wish to wear sunglasses or protective eyewear to help protect against potential eye trauma or injury that could lead to retinal problems.

To examine and diagnose eye conditions such as retinal disorders, ophthalmologists will typically first ask about the person’s medical history. This allows them to look for factors that may affect their vision, such as underlying conditions.

They will then perform a comprehensive eye exam with a particular focus on the retina and the macula. They will use a special instrument called an ophthalmoscope to investigate the inside of the eye.

The ophthalmologist may use eye drops to widen (dilate) the pupil to see the inner eye better. They may also request an eye ultrasound and give numbing eye drops to prevent discomfort as they scan the eye.

Ophthalmologists may also take images of the retina using optical coherence tomography (OCT) or a three-dimensional image of the blood flow in the eye using OCT angiography. They may also request dye tests such as fluorescein angiography to look for leakage in the blood vessels.

The goals of treatment will be to preserve and restore vision or to prevent and slow down the damage in the retina.

Treatment for retinal disorders varies depending on the type and extent of the condition. Options may range from medications and vitamins to injections, surgery, and laser treatments.

An individual’s eye specialist will discuss the most suitable treatment options for their condition.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that children have regular eye checkups. Additionally, people with underlying conditions such as diabetes and those at higher risk of certain eye conditions should also undergo regular checkups.

A person should immediately contact an eye doctor if they experience any of the following:

Retinal problems are conditions that affect the retina and often cause difficulty with vision. Early detection is essential to prevent and delay the progression of most retinal disorders.

It is advisable to have regular eye checkups, particularly if a person has a higher risk of retinal disorders. If a person begins to experience any changes to their vision, they should contact an eye doctor.