Retina Problems: Warning Signs You May Have a Retinal Disease
A Quick Eye Lesson
Before we get into the warning signs, it’s important to understand the different parts of the eye to understand what the retina actually is.
The retina itself is the layer of tissue found at the very back of the eye. When light enters your eye and hits the retina, the retina will process that light information and send signals to the brain through your optic nerve.
Without the retina, your brain won’t receive any signals about what you’re seeing. If the retina is damaged, or degenerated, it can result in vision loss and eventual blindness.
Warning Signs of Retina Problems
Now that you know how the retina works, let’s look at some of the top symptoms that could indicate you have retinal problems.
Flashing lights can be a symptom of a number of conditions including migraines, eye injury, and retina problems. If you don’t often suffer from headaches or have never experienced random flashing lights before, this can be a sign that you could have a retinal disease or problem.
As we went over earlier, the retina is responsible for sending light signals to the brain. When the retina is damaged or diseased, it can send incorrect and/or abnormal signals to your brain, which could cause you to experience this “flashing light” phenomenon.
Dim vision can be characterized as things looking darker than usual, being “muddied”, and seeing less contrast. Some compare it to how it looks when you wear slightly tinted sunglasses or dimming the light switch on an overhead light.
Double vision is when you see a duplicate version at the same time as the real version. The doubled version is often blurry and less sharp compared to what you’re actually seeing. The two images are often overlapping, layered, and/or blurry, which can be disorienting and uncomfortable for people with this symptom.
While double vision can be a symptom of various disorders, it often points to a retinal issue.
Double vision can be classified as one type of distorted vision. However, most people with retinal problems experience a few types of distorted vision, including:
- Double vision
- “Wavy” lines
- Things appearing crooked
- Blurred vision
The severity of these vision problems can vary, and many people mistake their blurry vision as simply worsening vision related to age. However, you should always be evaluated by an eye care professional to rule out serious issues like a retinal disease.
Specks and/or Lines in Vision
We’ve all experienced this before: you see random dots or lines in your vision for a few minutes before they disappear. These are normal and happen to all of us at some point.
However, if you notice this happening more often, or the lines/specks don’t go away, that could be a sign there’s something serious going on. This is a common sign of retinal damage or degeneration: damaged retinas send incorrect signals to the brain, which can cause you to see these random lines/squiggles.
We all have one blind spot in our peripheral vision because of how the optic nerve is situated in the back of the eye.
Developing larger or an increased number of blind spots is cause for concern and a definite warning sign of retinal issues. These could be in the form of complete blind spots, large shadows, or something “blocking” your vision in a certain area.
The National Eye Institute reports that about 40 to 45% of diagnosed diabetics “have some degree of diabetic retinopathy,” a form of eye disease in which the retina is damaged. The retina is a thin sheath of tissue that adheres to the inside wall at the back of the eyeball. It contains millions of light-sensitive cells called rods and cones that receive and organize visual information and send it on to the optic nerve for processing.
In diabetic retinopathy, blood vessels that support the retina are damaged by high blood sugars. It’s more likely to develop in people who’ve had diabetes for a long time and in those whose blood sugars have not been well controlled. It usually develops in both eyes. Diabetic retinopathy causes several symptoms including:
- Spots or dark floaters
- Blurry or hazy vision
- Impaired color vision
- Vision loss
What is the thyroid gland?
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland that is normally located in the lower front of the neck. The thyroid’s job is to make thyroid hormones, which are secreted into the blood and then carried to every tissue in the body. Thyroid hormone helps the body use energy, stay warm and keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should.
What are the symptoms of graves ophthalmopathy?
Eye symptoms most often begin within 6 months of diagnosis of Graves’ disease. Very rarely eye problems may develop long after the thyroid disease has been treated. In some patients with eye symptoms, hyperthyroidism never develops and, rarely, patients may be hypothyroid. The severity of the eye symptoms is not related to the severity of the hyperthyroidism.
Symptoms of Graves’ eye disease include: Feeling of irritation or grittiness in the eyes, redness or inflammation of the conjunctiva (the white part of the eyeball), excessive tearing or dry eyes, swelling of the eyelids, sensitivity to light, forward displacement or bulging of the eyes (called proptosis), and double vision. In more advanced eye disease there may also be decreased eye movement and eyelids, incomplete closure of the eye with corneal ulceration, compression of the optic nerve and rarely, loss of vision.
Graves’ disease and usually the associated eye disease cannot be prevented. However, radioiodine therapy used to treat hyperthyroidism is more likely to worsen the eye disease and should be avoided, if possible in patients with moderate or severe eye disease. Treatment with antithyroid drugs or surgery does not affect the course of eye disease.
If radioiodine is used to treat hyperthyroidism in patients with moderate or severe eye disease, taking a corticosteroid drug (prednisone) at the time of the treatment, which is tapered over several weeks may help prevent worsening of Graves’ eye disease.
Smokers are more prone to develop Graves’ Ophthalmopathy than nonsmokers and they should try to stop smoking. Second hand exposure to smoke has the same effect as active smoking and should be avoided.
Many of the viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi that can invade the human body are also capable of attacking the surface or interior of the eye. Infectious eye diseases can be categorized in two ways.
Firstly, doctors normally talk about the part of the eye that’s infected or inflamed. Conjunctivitis, for example, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the membrane that covers the front surface of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelid. Other possible locations of inflammation include the eyelid (blepharitis), the cornea (keratitis), the liquid inside the eye (vitritis), the retina and the blood vessels that feed it (chorioretinitis), or the optic nerve (neuroretinitis). These are just a few examples – the eye is a complex organ of many parts.
Secondly, eye infections are also classified according to what’s causing them. Ocular histoplasmosis syndrome (OHS), for example, is caused by a fungus (the condition is a type of chorioretinitis). It generally attacks the blood supply of the retina, on the inner rear surface of the eye.
The most common eye infection is conjunctivitis caused by an adenovirus (a type of common cold virus). This type of infectious conjunctivitis is sometimes called pinkeye and is most common in children. Viral conjunctivitis is very contagious because the virus can be spread from the eye to hands that then touch doorknobs and other surfaces that other people use.
There are other causes of infectious conjunctivitis, such as bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus. Bacterial infections occur most commonly in children and tend to result in longer-lasting cases of pinkeye.
Treating thyroid eye disease
If you have thyroid eye disease, your treatment may be in several stages. This is because the condition tends to progress through 2 main phases:
- an “active” phase, when dryness and redness are prominent and you may be at risk of vision problems
- an “inactive” phase, when the condition has settled down, but you may be left with some long-term problems (including protruding eyes)
The active phase can last for several months to 2 years.
Correcting thyroid hormone levels
If you have an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), you’ll usually be offered medicine to correct the level of thyroid hormones in your blood.
For example, an overactive thryoid can be treated with medicines such as thionamides, which prevent your thyroid gland producing excess thyroid hormones.
Treating your thyroid problems will not necessarily improve your related eye symptoms, but it may help prevent other problems associated with abnormal thyroid levels. It may also prevent bulging eyes from getting worse.
You may also be advised about treatments and things you can do yourself to relieve some of the symptoms associated with the active phase of thyroid eye disease.
- stopping smoking if you smoke, as smoking can significantly increase the risk of eye problems getting worse
- using extra pillows in bed at night to help reduce some of the puffiness around your eyes
- wearing sunglasses if you have sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- trying to avoid exposing your eyes to irritants such as dust
- using eye drops to help relieve soreness and moisten your eyes if you have dry eyes
- wearing glasses containing special prisms designed to help correct double vision
If thyroid eye disease is mild, self-care and medicines to correct your thyroid hormone levels may be all the treatment you need.