Floaters & Flashes of Light

Flashes and Floaters are a common complaint we hear from patients at Eyecare Medical Group in Portland. If you’re like most people, you’ve seen small moving spots or lines in your field of vision. Seven out of 10 people experience these “floaters” at some point in their lives. Sometimes a flash of light appears at the same time. Flashes and floaters are extremely common and are usually no cause for worry, although they can be an annoyance and may even be frightening.

Retina and Eye Floaters Diagram

About Floaters

Floaters may appear as tiny specks or “cobwebs” or as small dark shadows, “thread-like” strands or even “squiggly” lines that actually float around in your field of vision.  They tend to move as your eyes move, but not necessarily in the same direction, and often just drift away when your eyes stop moving.

Generally, floaters are a normal and expected consequence of the aging process of your eyes.  In most cases, if left alone, they will “settle” or break up over time and no longer be annoying.  Most patients learn to simply ignore their floaters under most circumstances.  Typically they become more noticeable when looking at a visual field with a white background such as a plain piece of paper or a clear blue sky.

The “back of the eye” is filled with a gel-like substance called the Vitreous Humor.  The Vitreous occupies approximately 80% of the volume of the eye.  As we age, the normally
gel-like Vitreous tends to separate into liquid sections and “stringy” or “clumped” sections.  These clumped strands of Vitreous can actually cast shadows on the retina which are perceived as floaters.

The likelihood of experiencing floaters increases as we get older and is more common if you are very nearsighted, have diabetes or have had a blow to the head from sports or an accident.  Sometimes other eye conditions or problems inside the eye may cause floaters such as infections, inflammation, hemorrhages, retinal tears or trauma to the eye.

About Flashes

Occasionally, a small section of the Vitreous gel may pull away from the Retina all at once instead of slowly and gradually.  This can cause a noticeable and sudden increase in the number of floaters that you see and can be accompanied by flashes of light.  This is called a Vitreous Detachment and it means that you should have a prompt eye exam, especially if light flashes or distortion in your side vision accompanies it.  These are signs of a possible retinal detachment, which is a sight-threatening medical emergency.

Treatment of Flashes and Floaters

For the vast majority of people who have floaters, even though they may be annoying, no treatment is recommended.  In many instances, the floaters actually “settle” over time making them less noticeable.  In the unusual event that your floaters are extremely bothersome because there are a great number of them or because they are particularly dense, a surgical procedure called a Vitrectomy may be considered.  Performing a Vitrectomy requires an Eyecare Medical Group Vitreoretinal Surgeon to actually remove the Vitreous gel inside of your eye along with any debris or strand-like material that may be interfering with your vision. Vitrectomy is considered major eye surgery and most eye surgeons are quite hesitant to recommend Vitrectomy as treatment for floaters unless the disturbance of your vision is very significant.

If you experience a sudden onset of flashes or floaters, even if you have no vision loss, you should call Eyecare Medical Group and request an appointment.  Please tell the receptionist that you are experiencing these symptoms so you can be scheduled immediately.  After a thorough dilated eye examination your eye doctor is able to diagnose whether your floaters are part of normal aging or due to a more serious and possible sight-threatening problem.