Did you see that? Flashes and floaters are a very common symptom that patients describe at all ages for many different reasons. The cause can range from common age changes to retinal detachment and vision loss. The only way to know the cause and possible treatment options is to see a qualified eye physician and have a detailed eye exam. Call us today, you will be glad you did.
The small specks, “bugs,” or clouds that you can sometimes see moving in your field of vision are called floaters. You can often see them when you’re looking at a plain background, such as a blank wall or blue sky. The ancient Romans called them muscae volitantes, or “flying flies,” because they appear like small flies in the air. They’re actually tiny clumps of gel or cellular debris within the vitreous, the clear, jellylike fluid that fills the inside cavity of the eye. Although the “flies” appear to be in front of the eye, they are actually floating in the fluid inside the eye, casting their shadows on the light-sensing inner layer of the eye—the retina. Moving your eyes back and forth and up and down creates currents within the vitreous capable of moving the floaters outside your line of vision.
The vitreous gel degenerates in middle age, often forming microscopic clumps or strands within the eye. Vitreous shrinkage or condensation is called “posterior vitreous detachment” and is a common cause of floaters. It occurs frequently in nearsighted people or in those who have undergone cataract operations or YAG laser surgery. Occasionally, floaters result from inflammation within the eye or from crystal-like deposits that form in the vitreous gel. The appearance of floaters, whether in the form of dots, circles, lines, clouds, or cobwebs, may be alarming, especially if they develop suddenly. However, they are usually nothing to be concerned about; they’re the result of the normal aging process.
Are Floaters Serious?
The vitreous covers the retinal surface. Occasionally, the retina is torn when degenerating vitreous gel pulls away. This causes a small amount of bleeding in the eye, which can appear as a group of new floaters. A torn retina can be serious if it develops into a retinal detachment. Your eye doctor should check any sudden onset of many new floaters or flashes of light. Additional symptoms, especially loss of peripheral or side vision, require repeat ophthalmic examination.
When the vitreous gel, which fills the inside of the eye, rubs or pulls on the retina, it sometimes produces the illusion of flashing lights or lightning streaks. It is usually not cause for worry. On rare occasions, light flashes accompany a large number of new floaters and even a partial loss or shadowing of side vision. When this happens, an eye doctor should check to determine if a torn retina or retinal detachment has occurred.
Flashes of light that appear as jagged lines or “heat waves,” often lasting 10 to 20 minutes and present in both eyes, are likely to be migraine caused by a spasm of blood vessels in the brain. A migraine headache sometimes follows. However, these jagged lines or “heat waves” commonly occur without a subsequent headache. In this case, the light flashes are referred to as ophthalmic A picture containing text Description automatically generated migraine, or migraine without headache. If you would like more information about floaters or flashes, or to schedule a comprehensive eye exam, please contact us.
The Doctors at Eye Specialists & Surgeons of Northern Virginia have either authored or reviewed and approved this content.