program logo/macu/on light

What is a Macular Hole?

Joshua Dunaief, MD, PhD

Scheie Eye Institute, University of Pennsylvania

  • Expert Advice
Published on:
An eye doctor looking through an ophthalmoscope.

A macular hole is basically what it sounds like; a hole in the central part of the retina, which is called the macula. This hole causes blurring or distortion of the central vision. Learn about the similarities and differences between macular hole and macular degeneration.

What Causes a Macular Hole?

Macular holes can be full or partial thickness and can vary in size. They are caused by age-dependent contraction of the jelly in the center of the eye, called the vitreous. The vitreous is the substance that fills in the region from the lens to the back of the eye. As the vitreous shrinks, it pulls on the retina. In most people, the vitreous separates cleanly from the retina, but in some patients, it is tightly stuck to the retina and tears a hole. Then, fibers on the surface of the retina can pull on the hole to enlarge it.

Macular Hole Video

  • The Macula is the portion of the retina responsible for detailed central vision. As we age, the vitreous inside the eye can shrink and pull on the retina, creating a hole in the macula. In its early stages, a macular hole can cause a slight distortion or blurriness in the central vision. Reading, and performing other routine tasks, such as driving, may become difficult. If the condition progresses, patients will experience a loss of central vision. If left untreated, the vision loss from the macular hole can be permanent.

Macular Degeneration vs. Macular Hole

Macular hole occurs when some or all of the neurons in the center of the macula are pulled out of position. Macular holes are different from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease in which deposits called drusen form under the retina and the light-sensitive cells (photoreceptors)  of the macula slowly break down (dry AMD),  or when abnormal, leaky blood vessels grow behind the macula and vision loss occurs from the death of the photoreceptors (wet AMD).


Some small, partial thickness holes close without treatment. Others require outpatient surgery to prevent further vision loss, and, in some cases, improve vision. The surgery involves removing the vitreous jelly to stop it from pulling on the retina, and then replacing it with gas that holds the retinal in place as long as the patient is in a face-down position. This positioning may be necessary for about two weeks, until the gas bubble is absorbed and replaced by fluids made by the eye. Special devices are available to help patients maintain this face-down position.  Following the surgery, clouding of the lens called cataract is common, and may require a second surgery to remove the lens and replace it with a clear plastic one. This, of course, is not an issue in patients who have already had cataract surgery.

Treatment Overview Video

  • Located in the back of your eye, the macula is the part of the retina that provides the sharp vision you need for seeing fine detail. When a hole develops in the macula, it can cause blurred and distorted central vision that worsens over time. The good news is this hole can be repaired with a common procedure called a vitrectomy. During the vitrectomy, your doctor will gently remove the vitreous gel that makes up your eye, and inject a gas bubble in its place. This bubble acts like a temporary bandage by placing gentle pressure on your retina to help seal the hole in your macula. To keep the bubble pressed against the macular hole, you may be required to stay in a facedown position or to keep your eyes looking down for several days. Holding the bubble in place may help seal the hole. Your eye will slowly reabsorb the gas bubble, and your vitreous cavity will refill with natural eye fluids. If you have questions about vitrectomy to treat your macular hole, ask us today!

Important Advice

Blurry or distorted central vision can be caused by a number of diseases, and patients who notice this should have a retinal exam by an eye doctor who uses dilating eye drops. Many people in their 40s and older (and sometimes in younger, very near-sighted people) will at some point see arcs of flashing light in their peripheral vision and floating spots like bugs flying across their vision when they move their eyes. These are symptoms of a vitreous detachment. The flashing lights only last a short time, but the floating spots, or “floaters” do not go away. They are most noticeable in bright light when looking at a white background or the sky. For most people this will not be a problem, but in a few, it may cause a macular hole if it tears the central retina, or a potentially a retinal detachment if it tears either the peripheral or central retina.

Patients experiencing sudden arcs of flashing lights at the edge of their vision, floaters, or a “curtain” blocking part of their vision should seek immediate attention from an eye doctor, as this can signal a retinal detachment, an emergency situation that can lead to permanent vision loss.

About the author

Headshot of Dr. Joshua Dunaief

Joshua Dunaief, MD, PhD

Scheie Eye Institute, University of Pennsylvania

Joshua Dunaief, MD, received his BA magna cum laude in Biology from Harvard (1987), MD/PhD from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (1996), completed ophthalmology residency at the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins in 2000, and medical retina fellowship at Scheie Eye Institute, University of Pennsylvania in 2004.

Help find a cure

Donate to help end Macular Degeneration Disease

I would like to donate

Stay in touch

Receive Macular Degeneration research updates and inspiring stories