As the eye ages, the vitreous gel inside of the eye begins to liquefy and breakdown. This gel, which is normally adherent to the retina (the nerve layer lining the back of the eye), begins the pull away creating traction on the retina. As a result, a tear in the “fabric” of the retina can occur.
Symtpoms often include acute onset of flashes, floaters, or unexplained shadows. There are no pain fibers in the retina, so a tear in the retina does not produce discomfort or pain. The breakdown of the gel and subsequent tears can also happen in younger people who suffer high myopia (nearsightedness), lattice degeneration, or trauma.
Retinal tears can quickly lead to a retinal detachment, which is a sight threatening problem (to learn more about retina detachment click here). This is why retinal tears are treated urgently with laser therapy. Laser acts to “tack down” the retina around the tear and prevent a retinal detachment from occurring. While it is impossible to actually fix the tear itself, the timely treatment of a tear with laser is extremely successful.