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Retinal Detachment Sidelines Vikings Coach


When Minnesota Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer was recently sidelined with a retinal detachment, the sports world was suddenly abuzz with eye news. Zimmer had surgery to remedy his condition and had to sit out a few games, which wasn't great for his team or fans—but his potentially blinding condition helped raise awareness of this not-so-rare occurrence.

"That awareness is important because you may experience retinal detachment symptoms without realizing that you're experiencing a medical emergency," says Moran Eye Center ophthalmologist, Rachael Jacoby, MD.

The good news? Most retinal detachment surgeries—80 to 90 percent—are successful according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

What Happens, Where, and How

The retina is the light-sensitive layer of tissue that lines the inside of the eye and sends visual messages through the optic nerve to the brain. When the retina detaches, it is pulled away or lifted from its normal position. If it's not fixed, it loses the ability to function and may result in permanent blindness.

The eyeball is filled with a clear material called "vitreous gel," which is attached to the retina in the back of the eye. As we age, this gel may change shape, pulling away from the retina. If it actually pulls a piece of the retina with it, you have a retinal tear. Once this happens, vitreous fluid may seep through and lift the retina off of the back wall of the eye, causing the retina to completely detach or pull away. This can happen at any age, but it's more common in people over age 40 and affects men more than women.


Most people experience small, infrequent "floaters"—tiny specs that can float around our field of vision, and they are harmless. But a sudden or even gradual increase in the size and number of floaters may signal that the retina is tearing. Sudden light flashes in the eye could also indicate trouble. Seeing a shadow in your side vision or a gray curtain moving across your field of vision—or any sudden decrease in your vision—means the sooner you see an ophthalmologist, the better.

Sometimes, retinal detachments can show up during a dilated eye exam—which is what happened to Zimmer. He had scratched his eye during a game in October and found out he had a retinal tear during an exam to check out the scratch. He had no idea he had a tear, but once it was detected, his doctor repaired it with laser surgery. A week later, he experienced some vision issues and ended up having a second surgery to further repair the tear. After that, the retina actually detached, and he went in for a third and more comprehensive surgery that required some recovery time. (Recovery time depends on the type of surgery and the size and location of the detachment.) "This is not uncommon," notes Jacoby, "The important thing to know is that we have several options for treating retinal tears and detachments—if we catch them soon enough."