Retinal Break

The retina is made up of a sensory layer containing the photoreceptors, a middle layer containing several types of other nerve cells, and an innermost layer comprising the ganglion cells, which receive and transmit the received impulses through the optic nerve.

The retina lies upon the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), which contains cells rich in melanin. This layer separates the retina from the choroid, which is a dense plexus of blood vessels that supports and nourishes the sensitive structures in the eyeball.

The melanin within the retina absorbs any light that escapes the sensory layer, prevents or minimizes the backscattering of light, and renews the photoreceptor pigments that are bleached each time they respond to incoming light photons. Melanin also ensures quick turnover of the photoreceptor disks, which is essential for good vision.

Retinal Consultants of Arizona - Retinal Tears & Detachments

What is a retinal break?

About 80% of the eye is filled with a gel-like vitreous body, which gives the eye its round contour. This is crisscrossed by millions of very fine connective tissue fibers, which are attached more or less loosely to the retinal surface. In most patients, the vitreous humor contracts with age. In areas where the fibers are firmly attached, the retina tears due to the pulling away of the vitreous. This creates a retinal hole.

Thus, retinal breaks are holes in the retina that occur mostly when the vitreous body in front of the retina contracts and tugs on it. This leads to the seepage of fluid underneath the retina through the break.

As a result, the retina in that area detaches from the underlying RPE. This is also called a rhegmatogenous retinal break and is seen in a quarter of patients who present with posterior vitreous detachment. This shoots up to two-thirds of the patient also has associated vitreous hemorrhage.

Other reasons for a retinal break to occur include:

  • Any condition which causes degeneration of the peripheral retina
  • The trauma of the eye
  • Surgery on the eye
  • High myopia
  • Macular pucker in rare cases

Types of retinal breaks

Retinal breaks may be peripheral or macular.

Peripheral breaks include:

  • Operculated breaks where a small piece of the retina is so firmly attached to the vitreous fibers that it is pulled right off, covering a small hole.
  • Flap tears, where a U-shaped or horseshoe tear occurs in the posterior part of the retina. This is the most likely to lead to fluid collection under the sensory layer and later to retinal detachment. Flap tears are often associated with local vitreous traction pulling up a flap of the retina.
  • Atrophic holes, which are the most common types, are holes extending through the full thickness of the retina. These wholes are usually round, and the surrounding area may or may not be pigmented. Atrophic holes occur due to poor vascular supply and degenerative conditions of the retina, such as lattice degeneration.

Symptoms of retinal breaks

The earliest and most common symptom of a retinal break is the loss of peripheral vision in that area as a result of the retinal detachment. The loss of peripheral vision in that area, however, is a subtle sign in most cases and is usually missed by the patient.

Patients also report the presence of floaters or flashes of light. Floaters are small black specks or streaks that appear in the field of vision and dart about with eye movements. They are actually shadows cast upon the retina by organized blood, coarse intravitreal fibers, or cell clumps within the vitreous and are of no particular significance by themselves.

Diagnosis and management

Retinal breaks should be looked for in every case of posterior vitreous detachment. The vitreous should be carefully examined, as well as the peripheral retina. Early detection is important to prevent them from developing into retinal detachment and associated vision loss.

Treatment depends on the type and location of the break, the other findings noted, and the presence of symptoms or risk factors. Symptomatic flap tears carry the greatest risk for progression to retinal detachment. Cryotherapy and photocoagulation are currently employed methods to seal retinal breaks. Both these methods induce fibrosis around the treated area, holding the retina firmly to the underlying RPE.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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