Retinal detachment

Last updated: October 12, 2022

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Retinal detachment refers to the detachment of the inner layer of the retina (neurosensory retina) from the retinal pigment epithelium. The most frequent causes of retinal detachment are tears or holes in the retina (rhegmatogenous retinal detachment), risk factors for which include myopia, previous intraocular surgery, trauma, and/or posterior vitreous detachment. Less commonly, retinal detachment occurs without any retinal tears (non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment). Non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment is most often the result of vitreoretinal bands (e.g., proliferative diabetic retinopathy), subretinal/intraretinal tumors (e.g., choroidal melanoma), or a number of systemic and ocular causes that result in subretinal fluid accumulation. Small detachments typically present with photopsia, floaters, and/or visual field defects. Loss of vision may be severe if the retinal detachment is extensive and/or the macula is affected. The diagnosis is confirmed by ophthalmoscopy. To prevent retinal detachment, laser photocoagulation in the direct vicinity of the retinal defect should be performed after diagnosis of retinal tears or holes. Extensive retinal detachment is an ophthalmic emergency and usually requires prompt surgery to prevent further detachment and restore sensory function. Visual prognosis depends particularly on the extent of retinal detachment (poor with macular involvement) and how much time passes before the retina is reattached.

Etiologytoggle arrow icon

Type of retinal detachment Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment Non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment
Tractional retinal detachment Exudative retinal detachment
  • Most common type
  • Retinal tears → retinal fluid, which is formed by vitreous degeneration, seeps into the subretinal space → retinal detachment
  • Formation of vitreoretinal bands → traction on the vitreoretinal band during eye movements or as a result of sudden decrease in intraocular pressure → retinal detachment
  • Subretinal fluid accumulation without retinal tears
Risk factors


Pathophysiologytoggle arrow icon

  • Detachment of the neurosensory retina, which contains the photoreceptor layer, from the retinal pigment epithelium.
  • Disturbed metabolism of the photoreceptor layer leads to loss of retinal function (i.e., vision impairment)
  • Separation of the retina from the choroid for more than 12 hours leads to retinal ischemia and retinal degeneration.


Clinical featurestoggle arrow icon


Diagnosticstoggle arrow icon

Both direct and indirect ophthalmoscopy should be performed after dilating the pupil. Indirect retinoscopy is useful to visualize the peripheral retina.

The unaffected eye should always be examined, as in ∼ 15% of cases of rhegmatogenous retinal detachment, there is a bilateral tear. Preliminary stages of retinal detachment should be diagnosed early and, if necessary, promptly treated (e.g., via laser)!

Differential diagnosestoggle arrow icon


The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

Treatmenttoggle arrow icon

Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment

  • For retinal holes/retinal tears with little or no retinal detachment (prophylaxis against retinal detachment): laser photocoagulation or cryoretinopexy in the direct vicinity of the retinal defect
  • In the case of extensive retinal detachment: prompt surgical treatment
    • First-line: 2 approaches
      • Scleral buckling (external tamponade)
      • Pneumatic retinopexy (internal tamponade)
    • Second-line: vitrectomy followed by subretinal fluid drainage, internal tamponade, and laser photocoagulation/cryoretinopexy

Retinal detachment is an emergency condition that warrants prompt surgical intervention!

Non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment

  • Tractional retinal detachment: Vitrectomy followed by internal tamponade and laser photocoagulation/cryoretinopexy.
  • Exudative (serous) retinal detachment:
    • Due to sub-retinal fluid accumulation: spontaneous reabsorption of fluid; no treatment is required
    • Due to tumors: enucleation (see “Therapy” in retinoblastoma)


Complicationstoggle arrow icon

  • Without treatment, progressive retinal detachment causes blindness, especially if the macula is involved.
  • Proliferative vitreoretinopathy
  • Toxic uveitis (due to endocular toxins) in the case of long-standing retinal detachment
  • Retinal detachment in the other eye


We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.

Prognosistoggle arrow icon

  • Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment
    • The smaller the area of detachment, the better the prognosis.
    • The prognosis is good if surgery is performed at an early stage and if there is no macular involvement.
  • Non-rhegmatogenous retinal detachment: significantly poorer prognosis


Referencestoggle arrow icon

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  9. Kanski JJ, Bowling B. Clinical Ophthalmology: A Systematic Approach. Elsevier Health Sciences ; 2011
  10. García-arumí J, Martínez-castillo V, Boixadera A, et al. Rhegmatogenous retinal detachment treatment guidelines. Arch Soc Esp Oftalmol. 2013; 88 (1): p.11-35.doi: 10.1016/j.oftale.2013.02.002 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  11. Ivanišević M. The natural history of untreated rhegmatogenous retinal detachment. Ophthalmologica. 1997; 211 (2): p.90-92.doi: 10.1159/000310766 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  12. Facts About Retinal Detachment. Updated: October 1, 2009. Accessed: March 1, 2018.

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