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In most cases, retinal detachment develops slowly. The first symptom is often the sudden appearance of a large number of spots floating loosely in the eye. The person may not seek help, because the number of spots tends to decrease during the days and weeks before detachment. The person may also notice a curious sensation of flashing lights as the eye is moved.

Because the retina does not contain sensory nerves that relay sensations of pain, the condition is painless.

Detachment usually begins at the thin peripheral edge of the retina and extends gradually beneath the thicker, more central areas. The person perceives a shadow that begins laterally and grows in size, slowly encroaching on central vision. As long as the center of the retina is unaffected, the vision when the person is looking straight ahead, is normal; but when the center becomes affected, the eyesight is distorted, wavy and indistinct. If the process of detachment is not halted, total blindness of the eye ultimately results. The condition does not spontaneously resolve itself.

Unfortunately, many people don't appreciate the urgency of the warning signs of retinal detachment, and they tend to put off seeing a doctor in the hope that symptoms will disappear.

In some cases, symptoms temporarily diminish only to be followed by a loss of vision over the next few days or weeks, caused by advanced retinal detachment. At this stage, retinal detachment can't always be successfully repaired with surgery, and vision loss may be permanent. So it's best to see your doctor at the earliest signs of retinal.

Warning signs of retinal detachment include:

The sudden appearance of many floaters — small bits of debris in your field of vision that look like spots, hairs or strings and seem to float before your eyes.

Sudden flashes of light in one or both eyes.

A shadow or curtain over a portion of your visual field.

A sudden blur in your vision.

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