Many people, as they age, start to notice strange dark flecks floating across their field of vision. These floaters are particular visible when you stare at a bright, clear background. They may seem like little cobwebs crossing your eye or small lines moving around.
Although these floaters may look problematic and seem distracting, they usually aren’t anything to worry about. Occasionally, however, they can indicate serious problems with your retina. Read on to learn more about what floaters are and what they mean for your eyes.
In your eyeball, the lens (at the front of the eye) and the retina (at the back of the eye) are separated by a reservoir containing a clear gel known as vitreous. It fills most of the eyeball, giving your eye structure, and connects to the retina with a few fibers. It never moves or flows, remaining in one position through most of your life.
As you age, however, the vitreous may start to liquefy. The once-stable gel shrinks and clumps together, forming the small flecks and strings that appear in your vision. Not everyone experiences this phenomenon, and it is more common among those who are near-sighted, those who have had cataract surgery, or those who have experienced eye trauma at some point.
These floaters usually aren’t anything to worry about. They won’t affect your vision or eye health, and over time they may simply settle to the bottom of the eye, leaving your field of vision entirely. Your brain may also learn to just ignore them completely. Because age-related floaters won’t harm you and normally clear up on their own, ophthalmologists generally won’t suggest any treatment.
Unfortunately, not all floaters develop due to natural causes. Floaters can also be a sign of inflammation, leaking blood, or retinal problems.
Among young people whose vitreous shouldn’t be liquefying yet, an inflammatory disease known as intermediate uveitis is often responsible for the appearance of floaters. With intermediate uveitis, the vitreous itself, as well as parts of the retina, become inflamed. It’s often associated with autoimmune diseases, but may also be caused by infections, eye injury, or foreign bodies entering the eye.
Retinal tears and detachments are the most serious cause of floaters. If not treated, a retinal detachment can lead to total vision loss. Retinal tearing can actually be a side effect of vitreous degeneration, as the shrinking vitreous can pull away from the retina. This process, known as posterior vitreous detachment, often occurs without causing harm, but other times it damages the retina.
The act of pulling away may cause a tear in the retina, which can lead to either blood entering the eye or the vitreous entering the retina itself. The vitreous pushes against the retina, causing the delicate tissue to detach from the eye.
Blood in the eye, known as a vitreous hemorrhage, happens as a result of an abnormality in the retina’s blood vessels, broken retinal blood vessels, or wounds on other parts of the eye. This can indicate a more severe condition, like a retinal tear, but the blood often clears away on its own.
Diagnosing Your Floaters
Since floaters can be either harmless or serious, you should quickly determine whether floaters are a result of natural, age-related degeneration or something that can have long-term negative effects on your eyes.
The signs of a retinal tear or detachment include:
- A sudden increase in the number of floaters
- Flashes of light, caused by retinal stimulation
- Groups of small dots crossing your eye
- Vision loss
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your eye doctor immediately. You may require surgery.
A vitreous hemorrhage won’t produce flashes of light in your eye, but you may notice increasing numbers of floaters over time and a red tint to your sight. You might also notice that your sight is more clouded or blurry in the morning because the blood has settled over your retina during the night.
To resolve problems with your retina or the natural floaters clouding your vision, your ophthalmologist may suggest one of several surgical suggestions.
One option, called a vitrectomy, involves the complete or partial removal of the vitreous. It’s a risky procedure that normally isn’t used to simply clear away floaters. Your eye doctor may recommend it if your vitreous hemorrhage isn’t clearing up on its own or the blood is severely blocking your vision.
A doctor may also perform a vitrectomy to get better access to a detached retina. Often, if the retinal detachment is caused by the vitreous pulling on the retina, the vitreous is removed and replaced by a gas or oil bubble that will keep the retina in place.
If your retina is torn and not yet fully detached, your eye doctor may use laser surgery or cryotherapy to burn or freeze the retina, creating a scar that seals the tear and reattaches the retina to the eye wall.
Floaters may be a normal sign that you’re aging, but have your eye doctor take a look. Serious issues like retinal detachment are easier to correct if you catch them early. To learn more, visit Country Hills Eye Center to talk to one of our ophthalmologists.