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Retinal Tears (Flashes & Floaters)


What Are Floaters?

Floaters are small clumps of cells or tissue that form in the vitreous gel, the clear jelly-like substance that fills the inside cavity of the eye. The appearance of these little dots, circles, lines, or cobwebs may cause much concern, especially if they develop suddenly; however, they are usually of little importance and reflect a normal aging process for most people. As one ages, the vitreous gel tends to liquefy. Although small floaters can be seen at any age, larger and more noticeable ones that appear suddenly tend to do so when the vitreous gel has liquefied to the extent that its back surface begins to separate from the retina. This occurrence is called a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) and its likelihood increases with age. Uncommonly, floaters are the result of inflammation within the eye or from crystal-like deposits that form in the vitreous gel rather than PVD.

What Are Flashes?

Stimulation of the retina produces light flashes. Light flashes often occur when the vitreous gel pulls on or separates from the retina such as during or shortly after PVD. Light flash phenomena can also originate from the visual centers of the brain such as what may precede a migraine headache.

Are Floaters or Flashes Serious?

They certainly can be. During or after PVD, the retina and/or a blood vessel may be torn, which causes bleeding in the eye that may appear as a cloud of new floaters or flashes. Tears in the retina are serious and typically need to be sealed in order to prevent a vision-threatening retinal detachment. In cases of dense hemorrhage that does not clear quickly on its own, vitrectomy surgery may be recommended to remove the blood and allow for treatment of the underlying source of bleeding. Without examination by an ophthalmologist, there is no way for a person to determine whether floaters or flashes are serious based on symptoms alone. Therefore, any sudden onset of many new floaters or light flashes should be evaluated promptly.

What Can Be Done About Floaters?

Floaters may be quite annoying and sometimes interfere with clear vision, especially when reading or viewing something against a light-colored background. If a floater appears directly in your line of vision, the best thing to do is move your eye around, which causes the floater to move out of the way. Often, floaters will break up or settle with time, making them less noticeable or bothersome. In rare cases where large floaters are debilitating and interfere significantly with a patient’s vision, a vitrectomy can be performed to surgically remove the vitreous gel and floaters.

What Can Be Done About Retinal Tears?

If your doctor diagnoses you with a retinal tear, a laser procedure or freezing treatment (cryopexy) can be performed in the office to seal the edges and significantly reduce the risk of developing a retinal detachment, which is a potentially blinding condition. Your surgeon will further outline the risks, benefits, and alternatives of treatment and make tailored recommendations based on the unique findings of your eye.

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