Have you ever noticed little spots floating across your vision? They might look like grey or black specks or strings that tend to drift out of sight when you try and look at them straight on. These small particles are called floaters.
What Are Eye Floaters?
As we age, our vitreous fluid (the liquid inside our eyes) tends to become thinner and less viscous. However, some clumps of gel remain, causing floaters. Since the rest of the vitreous is more liquid, these clumps tend to move around easily, making them more noticeable. What you are seeing is not actually the floaters themselves, but the shadows they cast on your retina. That is why floaters tend to appear black or grey.
Are Eye Floaters a Cause for Concern?
A few occasional floaters are nothing to worry about, but a sudden shower of spots and floaters may be cause for concern, particularly if they are accompanied by flashes of light.
Retinal Tears & Detachments
Flashes of light and a sudden shower of floaters may indicate that the vitreous is pulling away from your retina – a serious condition called posterior vitreous detachment. This may indicate that the retina is becoming dislodged from the back of your eye’s inner lining. This is serious because the inner lining provides your retina with the blood, nutrients, and oxygen it requires to function.
As the vitreous gel pulls on the retina, it can cause a small tear or hole to form. When the retina becomes torn, it can allow the vitreous to leak behind the retina, and the increased pressure behind the retina can push it farther away from the inner lining, causing retinal detachment.
Retinal tears and detachments may be painless, but they are still incredibly serious. If left untreated, they can cause permanent vision loss or even blindness.
How Common Are Retinal Tears & Detachments?
According to a recent study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, about one in every seven patients who experience sudden flashes of light or a sudden increase in floaters are currently experiencing a retinal tear or detachment, and 50% of patients with a retinal tear will develop a retinal detachment.
If you experience flashes of light or a sudden shower of flashes or floaters, it is imperative that you call your optometrist as soon as possible. If your optometrist’s office is closed, proceed to the nearest drop-in clinic or emergency room.
Who is at Risk for Retinal Detachment?
Anyone can develop a retinal detachment, but they are more common in some groups. Retinal detachment is more likely to occur in individuals who:
- Are over the age of forty
- Are extremely nearsighted
- Have a family history of retinal detachment
- Have experienced an eye injury
- Have undergone cataract surgery
- Have previously experienced a retinal detachment in their other eye
- Have experienced other eye diseases or disorders, including retinoschisis, degenerative myopia, uveitis, or lattice degeneration
Treatment for Eye Floaters
Unless you are experiencing a retinal tear or detachment, or your floaters are interfering with your vision, no treatment is necessary.
If your floaters are so numerous and dense that they are interfering with your vision your optometrist may suggest a vitrectomy to remove them.
A vitrectomy removes the vitreous gel, as well as the debris causing the floaters, from your eye. The vitreous is then replaced with a salt solution. Because virtuous is mostly water, you will not notice any difference between the salt solution and your natural vitreous.
However, like all surgeries, there are possible complications. Viterectomies carry significant risks, which may include retinal tears, retinal detachment, and cataracts. These considerable risks mean that most optometrists will only recommend the operation if your floaters are severe.
The Importance of Regular Eye Exams
Though the occasional floater does not mean you are experiencing retinal detachment, it is still crucial for you to have your eyes examined at least once per year. These exams allow your optometrist to detect, diagnose, and track small changes in your vision that could indicate something is wrong.