The vast majority of people experience floaters and flashes in their vision throughout their lifetime. While most of them are harmless, they can signal that you have a serious eye problem, that may compromise your vision.
Have you ever noticed specks, dark spots, threads or cobweb-like images in your vision? If you have, you’re not alone. Usually, these are nothing to worry about, but sometimes they can be a sign that you have a serious eye problem.
What are ‘floaters’?
These specks and strand-like visual impressions are called ‘floaters’ and they are made up of tiny clusters of cells inside the clear jelly-like fluid of the eye. This fluid, which resembles raw egg white is called the vitreous humor, and fills the space between the lens and the retina. This gel-like substance helps maintain the shape of the eyeball, and provides a path for light coming through the lens of the eye.
The vitreous connects to the retina, (a thin sheet of nerve cells, including light-sensitive cells), at the back of the eye. Light is converted into electrical signals, and then sent to your brain via the optic nerve, where interpretation of the signals take place, and ‘seeing’ occurs.
When you see the floaters, you’re actually seeing the shadow that they cast onto the retina, rather than the floater itself. You’ll probably notice that as your eye moves, the floaters also move, appearing to move away when you look directly at them, or drift slowly when your eyes stop moving. These floaters are also more noticeable when you’re looking at something bright, such as a white wall, or blue sky.
What are ‘flashes’?
Flashes can occur when the gel bumps, tugs or rubs against the retina. These flashes can occur on and off for weeks or months.
What causes them and who is at risk?
As we age, the vitreous begins to shrink, causing it to become stringy. These strands cast shadows on the retina, causing the floaters. It’s estimated that around 25 per cent of people have floaters due to vitreous shrinkage by the time they’re 60 years of age. This rises to around two-thirds in 80-year-olds.
People who are nearsighted or have had cataract surgery or a previous eye injury are more likely to experience floaters, as are those with diabetes.
A symptom of something more serious
Most of the time, floaters and flashes are harmless, and require no treatment, even if they are annoying at times. However, sometimes they can be a sign of a torn or detached retina, which may lead to vision loss if not treated promptly.
Sometimes, the shrinking vitreous pulls and tugs on the retina, causing it to tear. Fluid from the eye can then leak through the tear, causing the retina to detach. Fortunately, a torn retina isn’t painful, but it can cause you to see peripheral shadows, flashes of light, dark spots, and can result in your vision becoming affected — as if you are looking through a curtain. Some even experience total vision loss in the affected eye.
A detached retina is a serious medical condition, as it can lead to permanent vision loss.
What should you do?
Because floaters and flashes can indicate a retinal tear, it’s wise to get them checked out by a qualified eye specialist. However, some symptoms require urgent medical attention. Contact your ophthalmologist as soon as possible if you notice:
- new floaters or flashes of light
- a gradual shading of vision from one side — as if a curtain is being drawn across your eyes
- rapid decline in your sharp, central vision.
If there is a tear in the retina, it can be treated to prevent it from detaching. If you wait too long to seek treatment, you may be putting your sight at risk.
How are retinal tears and detachments diagnosed?
You need to see an ophthalmologist in order to determine whether you have a retinal tear or detachment. Diagnosis involves:
- a vision test
- checking the response of your pupils to light
- examination of your retina (it will be necessary to dilate your pupil with special eye drops in order for the retina to be examined thoroughly)
- ultrasound, in some cases.
How are they treated?
Usually a retinal tear can be treated in the ophthalmologist’s rooms. Treatment usually involves either:
- Retinal laser therapy – designed to create scar tissue around the hole, which seals the retina and helps the retina to stay attached.
- freezing (cryopexy/cryotherapy) — a very cold probe is used to freeze and seal the retina around the tear.
Repairing a detached retina is more complex and usually involves surgery. Treatment options will depend upon your individual circumstances.
Peace of mind
If you’re experiencing any floaters or flashes of light, why not make an appointment with one of our retinal ophthalmologists for your peace of mind? Our team of retinal ophthalmologists at the Cheltenham Eye Centre will perform a comprehensive eye examination and will advise accordingly.
Lead by Professor Noel Alpins, a world-renowned surgeon who has developed advanced laser treatment methods and specialist treatments, each one of our staff is highly qualified, meaning you can trust the future of your vision to us.
Pick up the phone and dial 03 9584 6122, to book your appointment today.
Nerissa Bentley, Health Writer