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Macular holes

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Visual problems article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Synonyms: macular cyst, retinal hole, retinal perforation

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What are macular holes?1

A full-thickness macular hole can be defined as an anatomical defect in the fovea with interruption of all neural retinal layers from the internal limiting membrane to the retinal pigment epithelium, causing reduced visual acuity and a central visual field scotoma.

Most macular holes (around 90%) are unilateral. However, there is an increased risk of developing a hole in the other eye.

How common are macular holes? (Epidemiology)

The incidence is estimated at around 8 per 100,000 per year.1

Around 90% of macular holes are unilateral at diagnosis.2 The five‐year risk for developing a full‐thickness macular hole in the other eye of a person with a full‐thickness macular hole in one eye is about 10% to 15%.3

Women are more commonly affected than men. Peak incidence for idiopathic macular hole formation is around 70 years, although patients with non-idiopathic holes tend to be younger.2

Although most macular holes are seen in elderly patients, they have been described in children, where they are rare and usually attributable to trauma. Isolated cases of idiopathic macular hole have been described in a child.4

Lamellar macular holes are small, partial‐thickness defects of the macula, which affect 1.1% to 3.6% of the population, with a preponderance towards people aged 50 to 70 years of age.5

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Aetiology6 7

Most patients with impending macular holes have a perifoveal vitreous detachment with focal attachment of the vitreous to the foveal umbo as well as a cystoid cleavage in the inner part of the umbo.

Transition from an impending hole to a full thickness hole starts with a dehiscence in the roof of the cystoid lesion.

Centrifugal traction causes the dehiscence to spread outwards into the photoreceptor layer, causing a full thickness defect. A macular hole can then be associated with a central retinal detachment.

Risk factors include cystoid macular oedema, retinal detachment, retinal surgery, laser injury, hypertension, very high myopia and diabetic retinopathy.

Macular holes symptoms (presentation)

Symptoms appear gradually over days/weeks:

  • Distorted vision.

  • Visual acuity reduction will depend on the site of the hole: small eccentric holes may have little effect on acuity. Holes that are not full-thickness also have less effect on acuity.

  • Look for a tiny well-defined 'punched out' area of the macula, which can be hard to detect. There may be yellow-white deposits at the base with a grey margin around it representing oedema.

  • Slit-lamp examination will show 'a round excavation with well-defined borders' interrupting the beam of the slit lamp.

  • Most patients also have a semi-translucent tissue over the hole, which may be surrounded by a grey halo caused by detachment of the retina.

  • Macular hole may (rarely) be an incidental finding.

Macular holes are classified by size and degree: classification relates to prognosis.

Gass Biomicroscopic Classification3

  • Stage 1a: yellow spot. This is not specific for macular hole and may also represent central serous chorioretinopathy, cystoid macular oedema and solar maculopathy.

  • Stage 1b: occult hole - doughnut shaped yellow ring (200-300 μm) centred on the foveola. Around 50% will progress to stage 2.

  • Stage 2: full-thickness macular hole (<400 μm). Pre-foveolar cortex usually separates eccentrically, creating a semi-transparent opacity (often larger than the hole) and the yellow ring disappears. Progression to stage 3 is usual.

  • Stage 3: holes >400 μm associated with partial vitreomacular separation.

  • Stage 4: complete vitreous separation from the entire macula and optic disc.

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Diagnosis is usually made clinically; however, the following may be helpful:

  • Optical coherence tomography: this technique provides high-resolution cross-sectional imaging of the retina and is useful in predicting prognosis.8

  • Fluorescein angiography may be useful in differentiating macular holes from cystoid macular oedema and choroidal neovascularisation. It typically shows a window defect early in the angiogram that does not expand with time, with no leakage or accumulation of dye.

  • There may be Amsler grid abnormalities, although plotting small central scotomas is often difficult.

Macular holes management

Referral to ophthalmology is required. The patient will need to be seen by a vitreoretinal surgeon. Not all units have one, so patients referred locally may be transferred on to tertiary referral centres for investigation and management.


Classic macular hole surgery consists of vitrectomy, posterior vitreous cortex separation and intraocular gas tamponade. Vitrectomy is effective in improving visual acuity, generally resulting in a moderate visual gain, and in achieving hole closure in people with macular hole.3

However, more recently there has been a move towards internal limiting membrane peeling as adjuvant therapy for increasing closure rates.9

Surgery is successful in preserving/improving vision in around 90% of cases of full-thickness hole. The chosen surgery depends on the staging of the hole:

  • Surgical closure is considered up until stage 3 or 4 associated with a visual acuity of 6/18 or worse.

  • Pars plana vitrectomy relieves traction on the edge of the hole. The vitreous is removed and a long-acting gas bubble is introduced to tamponade the macula back into position. The development of micro-invasive techniques has improved the rate of recovery following surgery.

  • In selected patients (particularly with larger holes) short periods of postoperative face-down positioning are used to encourage hole closure.10 11 12

  • Most patients' visual acuity improves by two lines of the Snellen chart. Success is still possible if the hole is long-standing (6 months-2 years) or if the patient is aged >80 years.13 14

  • Occasionally more than one operation is required to close the hole.

  • The internal limiting membrane (ILM) is a thin, transparent acellular membrane on the surface of the retina which may participate in the pathogenesis of maculopathies including macular hole. ILM peeling can improve the hole closure rate. Identification of the ILM is a challenging step in surgery. Therefore, staining the ILM is essential and may also decrease surgical trauma to the retina during ILM removal. ILM peeling is performed in selected patients. Patient selection is still the subject of discussion.15916

  • ILM flap formation, where the ILM is partially peeled then inverted and used to cover the hole. This technique is reserved for larger holes.16 17

  • Zinc and beta-carotene replacement have been advocated (Ocuvite®). These are of unproven benefit and are contra-indicated in patients with actively bleeding ulcers.6 18

  • Ocriplasmin (Jetrea®) is a recombinant protease with activity against fibronectin and laminin, both components of the vitreoretinal interface. It is used (as an intraocular injection) to treat symptomatic vitreomacular adhesion (approved in the USA in 2012). It dissolves the links from the vitreous to the macula, aiding detachment. It may be an alternative to surgery in some patients.6 19 18

  • For those patients who have a condition that precludes surgery, visual rehabilitation may be the only option. Referral to low vision clinics may be helpful.


Many patients develop cataracts. 76% of cases require cataract extraction within two years of macular surgery.

Other problems include:

  • Retinal detachment.

  • Iatrogenic retinal tears.

  • Macular retinal pigment epithelium changes.

  • Enlargement of the hole.

  • Macular light toxicity.

  • Postoperative intraocular pressure spikes.

  • Endophthalmitis.

  • Late reopening of an initially successfully closed hole.

  • Retinal pigment epithelial abnormalities.

  • Retinal detachment (less than 5%).


The prognosis of untreated full‐thickness macular holes is poor:3

  • Approximately 5% will have 20/50 visual acuity or better; 55% to 58% will have visual acuity of 20/100 or better; and approximately 40% will have visual acuity of 20/200 or worse.

  • About 75% of stage II macular holes progress to a full‐thickness stage III or stage IV macular hole.

Several factors affect outcomes. These include stage and size of the hole, duration of the symptoms, pre-operative visual acuity and other technical parameters that can be measured by optical coherence tomography (OCT) including the Macular Hole Index (MHI) - the ratio of the hole height to its basal diameter, with a higher ratio predicting a better outcome.

  • Stage 1 holes spontaneously resolve in 50% of cases.

  • If the macular hole has been present for 1-3 years then surgery is likely to be successful. If it has been present for 5 years or longer, then outcomes are more variable.

  • With surgery, early stage 2 holes show anatomical closure in over 90% of cases and a two or more line improvement on the Snellen chart in 80% of cases. NB: successful anatomical repair and visual acuity not necessarily correlated.

  • 10% stay the same and 10% lose some visual acuity.

  • There is a 12% chance (20% if other risk factors are present) of a similar hole developing in the other eye.

  • Visual acuity of 20/50 or better results in around half of patients whose symptoms are of recent onset.

Dr Mary Lowth is the author of the original author of this leaflet.

Further reading and references

  • Kusuhara S, Negi A; Predicting visual outcome following surgery for idiopathic macular holes. Ophthalmologica. 2014;231(3):125-32. doi: 10.1159/000355492. Epub 2013 Nov 26.
  • Baumann C, Hoffmann S, Almarzooqi A, et al; Defining a Cutoff for Progression of Macular Holes. Transl Vis Sci Technol. 2021 Nov 1;10(13):2. doi: 10.1167/tvst.10.13.2.
  1. Forsaa VA, Lindtjorn B, Kvaloy JT, et al; Epidemiology and morphology of full-thickness macular holes. Acta Ophthalmol. 2018 Jun;96(4):397-404. doi: 10.1111/aos.13618. Epub 2017 Dec 2.
  2. McCannel CA, Ensminger JL, Diehl NN, et al; Population-based incidence of macular holes. Ophthalmology. 2009 Jul;116(7):1366-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ophtha.2009.01.052.
  3. Parravano M, Giansanti F, Eandi CM, et al; Vitrectomy for idiopathic macular hole. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 May 12;2015(5):CD009080. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009080.pub2.
  4. Park JC, Frimpong-Ansah KN; Idiopathic macular hole in a child. Eye (Lond). 2012 Apr;26(4):620-1. doi: 10.1038/eye.2011.367. Epub 2012 Jan 13.
  5. Murphy DC, Rees J, Steel DH; Surgical interventions for lamellar macular holes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 Nov 8;11(11):CD013678. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD013678.pub2.
  6. Steel DH, Lotery AJ; Idiopathic vitreomacular traction and macular hole: a comprehensive review of pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment. Eye (Lond). 2013 Oct;27 Suppl 1:S1-21. doi: 10.1038/eye.2013.212.
  7. Jonas JB, Decker A, Mangler B, et al; Macular holes and central retinal detachment. Acta Ophthalmol. 2011 Jun;89(4):e377-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-3768.2010.01886.x. Epub 2010 Apr 6.
  8. Ruiz-Moreno JM, Staicu C, Pinero DP, et al; Optical coherence tomography predictive factors for macular hole surgery outcome. Br J Ophthalmol. 2008 May;92(5):640-4.
  9. Christensen UC; Value of internal limiting membrane peeling in surgery for idiopathic macular hole and the correlation between function and retinal morphology. Acta Ophthalmol. 2009 Dec;87 Thesis 2:1-23. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-3768.2009.01777.x.
  10. Malik A, Dooley I, Mahmood U; Single night postoperative prone posturing in idiopathic macular hole surgery. Eur J Ophthalmol. 2011 Aug 1:0. doi: 10.5301/ejo.5000039.
  11. Lange CA, Membrey L, Ahmad N, et al; Pilot randomised controlled trial of face-down positioning following macular hole surgery. Eye (Lond). 2011 Sep 23. doi: 10.1038/eye.2011.221.
  12. Solebo AL, Lange CA, Bunce C, et al; Face-down positioning or posturing after macular hole surgery. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Dec 7;(12):CD008228. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008228.pub2.
  13. Scott RA, Ezra E, West JF, et al; Visual and anatomical results of surgery for long standing macular holes. Br J Ophthalmol. 2000 Feb;84(2):150-3.
  14. Thompson JT, Sjaarda RN; Results of macular hole surgery in patients over 80 years of age. Retina. 2000;20(5):433-8.
  15. Alpatov S, Shchuko A, Malyshev V; A new method of treating macular holes. Eur J Ophthalmol. 2007 Mar-Apr;17(2):246-52.
  16. Lai CC; Internal Limiting Membrane - Making the Decision to Peel, Retina Surgery Global Perspectives, April 2015
  17. Kalur A, Muste J, Singh RP; A Review of Surgical Techniques for the Treatment of Large Idiopathic Macular Holes. Ophthalmic Surg Lasers Imaging Retina. 2022 Jan;53(1):52-61. doi: 10.3928/23258160-20211210-03. Epub 2022 Jan 1.
  18. Moisseiev J, Moroz I, Katz G; Effect of ocriplasmin on the management of macular holes: assessment of the clinical relevance of ocriplasmin. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2014 Jun;132(6):709-13. doi: 10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2013.8223.
  19. Haller JA, Stalmans P, Benz MS, et al; Efficacy of intravitreal ocriplasmin for treatment of vitreomacular adhesion: subgroup analyses from two randomized trials. Ophthalmology. 2015 Jan;122(1):117-22. doi: 10.1016/j.ophtha.2014.07.045. Epub 2014 Sep 18.
  20. Kusuhara S. Negi A; Predicting Visual Outcome following Surgery for Idiopathic Macular Holes. Ophthalmologica 2014;231:125-132

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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