The easy answer to this question – Can retina health problems cause blindness? - is “yes.” But there is more to it than a simple answer. There are many retina related problems that can lead to blindness.
What Is the Retina?
The retina is an important part of the makeup of the eye. It's located at the back of the eye, and it is a thin layer of tissue. You can find it near the optic nerve.
When light shines through your pupil, it goes to the retina where that light is converted to neural signals. It then sends those signals, by way of the optic nerve, to the brain for visual recognition.
There is a layer of photoreceptor cells in the retina, which is what it uses to process light. These cells detect things like color.
Retina Problems that Can Cause Blindness
Because the retina plays a major role in how you see things, damage to it can cause blindness. There are plenty of bad things that can happen to the retina – some of them come with age and others are caused by the shape of your eye.
Here are some of the more common illnesses that affect this eye part and your sight. There are far more than what is listed here, but this will give you an idea of the dangers there are to your retina and your eyesight in general.
1. Macular Degeneration
Macular Degeneration is most often an age-related disease that affects the retina. It causes loss of your central vision, beginning with blurry visions that will increase into blind spots over time. Macular degeneration often causes blindness, especially in people in their senior years.
The macula is in the retina (centralized), and it is a small region of cones. These are the photoreceptors that help you see the details of what you're looking at. When these photoreceptors within the macula begin to degenerate, you start to go blind.
In the beginning, blurry vision will be noticed when doing close-up tasks, like sewing or reading. You may see lines or get a distorted view. It may start in one eye, but those with macular degeneration in one eye are likely to get it in both.
2. Usher Syndrome
Usher syndrome isn't something you'll randomly develop – it is a condition that is inherited through genetics. It not only affects your eyesight but also your hearing. This syndrome is passed through an autosomal recessive inheritance pattern, from parents to their children.
Retinitis pigmentosa is another degenerative condition that affects the retina, and it is this condition that causes blinding through Usher Syndrome. It first appears some time between adolescence and early adulthood. Because it affects both hearing and eyesight, it can also affect balance.
There are three types of Usher Syndrome. Each type has its own effects on eyesight and hearing, which include night blindness, mild hearing impairment, and loss of peripheral vision. The third type is the rarest.
3. Stargardt Disease
Not all macular degeneration comes with age – there are some forms of this disease that can happen at younger ages. Stargardt Disease is also a form of macular degeneration that is inherited and develops during or before adolescence.
This disease causes progressive vision loss. The disease kills off the photoreceptor cells in the macula area of the retina. This too begins with decreased central vision.
4. Rod-Cone Dystrophy
You've already learned that those photoreceptors are an important part of vision – Rod-cone dystrophy is caused by the loss of rod photoreceptors, and then the cones.
Refsum disease is rare but is another type of degenerative disease that affects the retinas. It is also related to retinitis pigmentosa.
6. Cone-Rod Dystrophy
Cone-rod retinal dystrophy is another illness that affects the retina of the eye. It begins with a loss of color vision and is followed by night blindness. People with Cone-rod Dystrophy will also begin to experience a loss in peripheral vision.
There are also severe cases of this eye disease in which the person will experience retinal pigmentation, as well as chorioretinal atrophy of the retina, in both the central and peripheral areas.
What About a Detached Retina?
The detached retina is more common than you think, and it can lead to blindness when not taken care of. Often it won't lead to complete vision loss, but it can.
A detached retina is caused by the retina pulling away from the back of the eye – which causes blurry vision. It may lift or pull away from its normally firm placement inside the back of the eyeball. When this happens, immediate treatment is needed to avoid blindness.
Symptoms of a detached retina include –
- Seeing floaters
- Seeing flashing lights
- The appearance of what seems to be a veil covering your vision
Of course, these symptoms can mean other eye issues, and you might not actually have a detached retina. They are signs that something is definitely wrong, and if you have any of these symptoms make an appointment with your ophthalmologist.
Retinal detachment can occur for many reasons. One is if the vitreous fluid of the eye retracts, pulling the retina with it, which tears it. Glaucoma is a risk factor for retinal tears, as is severe trauma, previous cataract surgery, and heredity. Nearsighted people have an increased risk of retinal detachment as well.
Retina Surgery – A Must for a Detached Retina
While many of the retina related diseases and illnesses on this list don't have treatments, some do. Often, the treatments will revolve around surgery. One of the easiest to fix is the detached retina.
Surgically repairing your retina depends on how badly damaged it is. If it's only a simple tear, the fix can be simpler – often using laser procedures or cryotherapy. These same procedures are combined with other procedures in order to fix more intense retinal tears.
One common method for putting the retina back in its place is called pneumatic retinopexy. This treatment uses a gas bubble to push the retina back into the place where it belongs. Then laser treatment or cryotherapy is used to reattach the retina.
Severe tears and detachments are treated with a scleral buckle or vitrectomy. With scleral buckle, the doctor uses a flexible band that reverses the effects of whatever pushed the eye out of place. Then the fluid behind the retina needs to be drained so that the retina can move back into place.
Both the scleral buckle and vitrectomy procedures are done in a surgical setting and require anesthesia (the retinopexy can be done right in the eye doctor's office). These can also sometimes require an overnight stay in the hospital.
Caring for Your Eyes and Retinas
If you want to do what you can to avoid retina damage and possible blindness, there are many little things you can do that have a big impact on the health of your eyes.
1. Get Regular Eye Exams
Your yearly eye exam will help you detect eye diseases early, which means you can work on fighting them early. Your optometrist does tests that can even determine your risk of certain eye illnesses.
2. Quit Smoking
Among all of the other health risks you're opening yourself up to as a smoker, you are increasing your risk of eye damage and blindness each time you light a cigarette. Quitting now can stop and possibly reverse the damage you've already done. Smokers are at an increased risk of macular degeneration, among other things.
3. Always Wear Sunglasses when in the Sun
The ultraviolet rays from the sun are extremely damaging to your eyes. Don't just wear any old sunglasses, make sure that they have a block rating of 100%. Even when it's overcast, and even in the winter, the sun is damaging your eyes.
4. Protect Your Eyes with Safety Glasses
Anything you're doing in which something could get into your eyes, any foreign object (including a football), you need to be wearing safety glasses of some kind. Protect your eyes when you're working with chemicals. Use protective glasses when using computers to protect your eyes from the harmful effects of blue light.
5. Keep Your Contact Clean
Not only can improper care of contact lenses cause blindness, but you could also risk getting an infection that may cause corneal disease or cause the loss of one or both of your eyes. Only use contact lens solution for cleaning contacts – never use water (distilled or tap) or your saliva (gross) to do the job.
Final Thoughts on Retina Health
The retina of the eye is part of what allows you to see things – that makes this an important part of your eye to take care of. When you have trauma to your eyes, are seeing things unclear, or having any kind of eye pain, always visit your eye doctor for a complete eye exam to find out if something is wrong.