7 Types of Retinal Eye Disease

Maintaining eye health is top of mind for many. The retina plays an important role in how well your eyes work. The retina is the light-detecting layer at the back of the eye that is essential for vision. Some retinal conditions are more common with aging or diabetes. Others are hereditary, such as retinitis pigmentosa, or have genetic risk factors.

Keeping your vision safe from retinal disease is important. This article will explore symptoms, types of retinal disease, risk factors, prevention, and when to get an eye examination.

Two eye retina photos

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Symptoms

With retinal disease, any part of the retina can be affected. If you don't take steps to treat it, vision loss can be extreme and, in some cases, may ultimately cause blindness. But if you get proper treatment promptly, it's possible to restore vision in some cases or slow down vision loss, sometimes indefinitely.

Early Signs

While vision loss can be the first sign that something is wrong with your retina, there may be other clues. These can include:

If you contact your eye-care professional promptly, you will likely find the cause of your symptoms and get effective treatment.

Retinal Diseases

There is a variety of conditions that can cause retinal issues. Anything that affects the retina should be taken seriously since vision cannot be restored once it's lost here.

Conditions that can cause retinal damage include diabetic retinopathy, retinal tears, retinal detachment, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, and vein occlusion. All can threaten your sight if ignored. Here's what to know:

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy affects 1 in 3 people with diabetes. High blood sugar in diabetes impacts blood vessels throughout the body, including the small ones that feed the retina. Damage causes the small vessels to leak blood and other fluid into the retina.

Retinal swelling that then occurs can cause blurred or cloudy vision. What's more, new abnormal blood vessels start to grow here. These are less resilient than the normal ones and leak even more easily.

Diabetes Prevalence

Surveys show that 10.5% of people in the United States have diabetes. Of those, over 22% have not yet been diagnosed.

Retinal Tear

A retinal tear is what it sounds like—a rip or hole in the retina. It can occur when something attached to the retina tugs too hard. This can happen when there's a common posterior vitreous detachment.

With a posterior vitreous detachment, the gel inside the eye shrinks and separates from the sides, including the retina. Sometimes, it tightly sticks to the retina and, in separating, it can rip a hole there, causing a retinal tear.

Fluid can then leak behind the retina and build up, causing the retina to detach. If this is not promptly treated, vision loss can occur.

Retinal Detachment

A retinal detachment is when the retina pulls away from the tissues that nourish it. Without the needed blood supply, the retina no longer works as it should. The three causes are:

  • Rhegmatogenous: This is linked to retinal tears and is the most common type of retinal detachment. Such tears can be caused by aging, being nearsighted, having an injury, or having had eye surgery.
  • Tractional: Scar tissue formed when blood vessels feeding the retina are damaged pulls the retina away, causing a detachment. This usually happens in cases of diabetic retinopathy.
  • Exudative: This can result from many conditions, including inflammatory eye diseases, age-related macular degeneration, certain cancers of the eye, and some systemic (body-wide) conditions. It happens if fluid collects behind the retina to the point in which it pushes on the retina and causes it to detach.

Macular Degeneration

With age-related macular degeneration, fine central vision (what you see at the center of your visual field) is generally lost over time, but peripheral vision (what you see at the sides of your visual field) is maintained. It is unusual for someone to go completely blind from this. But for those over age 50, this is the most common type of severe vision loss. There are two types of macular degeneration—dry and wet.

Most people with macular degeneration have the dry form. With this, the macula (the oval spot in the retina responsible for central vision) slowly breaks down. It is unclear exactly what causes this. It's believed that the supporting membrane for the macula gradually breaks down.

With wet macular degeneration, there tends to be more severe vision loss. This occurs when abnormal, leaky blood vessels begin to form underneath the retina. These then can leak fluid onto the retina and may damage this, causing vision loss.

Epiretinal Membrane

Also known as macular pucker, epiretinal membrane involves a delicate, semitranslucent membrane that can form on the retina's inner surface. It has no blood vessels to leak. But, over time, it can pull on the retina as it contracts. Epiretinal membrane can cause visual distortions, such as crooked lines or blurred vision.

The occurrence of an epiretinal membrane usually happens because of a posterior vitreous detachment. It can also form for other reasons, including retinal detachment, eye surgery, diabetic retinopathy, and eye trauma.

Branch Retinal Occlusion

With a branch retinal occlusion, the blood flow to the retina can become blocked due to a clot. This can damage the retina, which needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. It can lead to a sudden loss of vision. But if this vision loss is not in the center of the retina, it may go unnoticed.

Also, if a retinal vein is blocked, blood may not drain from the retina, which can cause blocked blood vessels to begin to bleed and leak fluid.

The two types of retinal vein occlusion are:

  • Central retinal vein occlusion, in which the main retinal vein becomes blocked
  • Branch retinal vein occlusion, when a smaller vein in the branch becomes blocked

Retinitis Pigmentosa

This is a hereditary eye disease in which photoreceptors (light-detecting cells) on the retina begin to degenerate and cause a gradual decline in vision. The degeneration occurs specifically in the retinal photoreceptor cells called rods or cones. It can affect either rods or cones, or both. These cells are situated mainly on the outer layer of the retina.

Risk Factors

While every retinal condition is unique, some risk factors to be on alert for include the following:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Injury
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

Prevention

While there is currently no medication you can take to keep retinal disorders at bay, there are steps that can help reduce the chances of developing one of these conditions. These include:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Wearing sunglasses
  • Eating antioxidant-rich foods like leafy green vegetables
  • Keeping blood pressure and weight in a healthy range
  • Maintaining good control of blood sugar if you have diabetes
  • Taking multivitamins and other supplements
  • Going for routine eye visits and checking your vision with a tool called an Amsler grid.

When to Get an Eye Exam

If you see any changes in your vision, it's a good idea to schedule an eye exam. If you see flashes of light or specks in your vision, known as floaters, you may have a retinal detachment and you should immediately see an eye health professional.

An ophthalmologist (medical doctor specializing in eye disorders) is needed to treat retinal conditions.

Summary

Several conditions can affect your vision due to damage to your retina, the light-sensing layer at the back of your eye. Changes in vision such as flashes of light, a sudden increase of floaters, blurred central vision, or vision loss are signs of retinal disorders. You should seek immediate eye care if any of these occur.

Diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, retinal tears, and retinal detachment are some of the most common retinal disorders. Risk factors, some of which are preventable, include age, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, and injury,

A Word From Verywell

Preserving your vision means not only keeping retinal symptoms in mind but also being aware of conditions that can threaten retinal health and risk factors for these conditions. The good news is that visiting your eye practitioner at the earliest sign of trouble can go a long way toward maintaining vision.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are retinal diseases hereditary?

    Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa both appear to have a genetic component. But environmental factors also play an important role in many retinal conditions and should not be overlooked.

  • How can you improve eyesight?

    A healthy lifestyle and diet can help maintain your vision and put off eye problems. Research shows that those with healthy hearts are less likely to have eye problems like diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. Also, managing chronic conditions can be beneficial. For example, with diabetic retinopathy, lowering sugar levels and keeping physically fit can help to avoid vision complications.

  • How can you improve eye health?

    To improve eye health, keep up your overall health. Eat right, consuming lots of nutrient-rich fresh fruits and vegetables. Exercise regularly and get a good night's sleep. Also, protect your eyes from ultraviolet (UV) light with effective sunglasses. Avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol are also important steps.

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