The Symptoms : It’s 7 A.M., you’re sipping your morning cup of coffee, when out of the corner of your eye, you see a flash of light. You move your eyes and you see it again. You also notice what looks like a string or spot in your vision that seems to move when you move your eye. The visual symptoms you’ve experienced are commonly referred to as flashes and floaters. They are typically painless, and many people experience them when looking at a white wall or after exercise. They can be the result of a benign condition or the sign of a very serious problem.
Anatomy 101 : The eyeball is filled with a gel-like substance called the vitreous. The vitreous functions to maintain the shape of the eye and helps to keep the retina (the lining of the eye) in place against the inner wall of the eye. The retina is the part of the eye that is responsible for vision. Originally, the vitreous is a very organized meshwork of proteins. Normal aging or trauma can cause it to breakdown, at which time the proteins break away from the well-organized meshwork to float freely in the eye. When light entering the eye strikes these proteins, it casts a shadow on the back of the eye, and you see a floater. Flashes occur when the vitreous, as it breaks down, pulls on the lining of the eye (the retina). Most of the time all of these events occur without permanent visual consequence. However, occasionally, tugging on the delicate retina can result in the formation of a hole, tear, or detachment, which poses a threat to vision and requires treatment. Also a threat to vision, floaters can be the result of bleeding in the eye. Bleeding in the eye is often the result of diabetes and high blood pressure, but can also be caused by infection and inflammation inside the eye. These also are all very serious conditions and require immediate care.
The Bottom Line : Any time you have new visual symptoms, you should see your eye doctor immediately for a dilated eye exam. New flashes, a large cobweb, a curtain blocking your vision, or a sudden change in the clarity of your vision are all symptoms that are more serious in nature and should be evaluated promptly, even in the absence of pain. One last thing-if your floaters are diagnosed as a normal change in the eye, take comfort in the fact that they typically become less prominent in a matter of weeks to months and often times our brain learns to ignore them.