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Macular degeneration usually refers to age-related macular degeneration (AMD) which is a disease associated with aging that gradually affects the macula and destroys sharp, central vision. Central vision is needed for seeing objects clearly and for common daily tasks such as reading and driving.
AMD occurs in two forms: dry and wet. Their causes are different but may be related.
Dry AMD occurs when the light-sensitive cells in the macula slowly break down, gradually blurring central vision in the affected eye. As dry AMD gets worse, you may see a blurred spot in the center of your vision. Over time, as less of the macula functions, central vision is gradually lost in the affected eye.
Dry AMD has three stages, all of which may occur in one or both eyes:
Wet AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessels behind the retina start to grow under the macula. These new blood vessels tend to be very fragile and often leak blood and fluid. The blood and fluid raise the macula from its normal place at the back of the eye. Damage to the macula occurs rapidly. Wet AMD is also known as advanced AMD. It does not have stages like dry AMD.
All people who have the wet form had the dry form first. The dry form can advance and cause vision loss without turning into the wet form. The dry form also can suddenly turn into the wet form, even during early stage AMD. There is no way to tell if or when the dry form will turn into the wet form.
Both dry and wet AMD cause no pain.
The most common early sign is blurred vision. As fewer cells in the macula are able to function, people will see details less clearly in front of them, such as faces or words in a book. Dry AMD generally affects both eyes, but vision can be lost in one eye while the other eye seems unaffected.
Another sign of dry AMD is drusen. Drusen are yellow deposits under the retina. They often are found in people over age 60. Your eye care professional can detect drusen during a comprehensive dilated eye exam.
The classic early symptom is that straight lines appear crooked. This results when fluid from the leaking blood vessels gathers and lifts the macula, distorting vision. A small blind spot may also appear in wet AMD, resulting in loss of one's central vision.
The Amsler grid is used to look for signs of wet AMD. The pattern of the grid resembles a checkerboard. You will cover one eye and stare at a black dot in the center of the grid. While staring at the dot, you may notice that the straight lines in the pattern appear wavy. You may notice that some of the lines are missing. These may be signs of wet AMD.
Do NOT depend on the grid displayed here for any diagnoses - check with your eye care professional.
If your eye care professional believes you need treatment for wet AMD, he or she may suggest a fluorescein angiogram. In this test, a special dye is injected into your arm. Pictures are taken as the dye passes through the blood vessels in your retina. The test allows your eye care professional to identify any leaking blood vessels and recommend treatment.