Eye Floaters and Flashes: Symptoms of Posterior Vitreous Detachment
I experienced a Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD), so I can tell you all about the warning signs and symptoms.
Diagram of the Eye
One day when I woke up I experienced flashes with arcs of light in my peripheral vision. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it might be some kind of migraine.
Later in the day my glasses seemed to be dirty. As much as I tried to clean them I still saw cloudiness over everything. I thought it was my glasses, but it turned out to be my eyes.
I Suddenly Had a Lot of Floaters
Once I realized my glasses were indeed clean it became obvious that the disturbance was really localized in my right eye. Then I realized that the disturbance was actually a huge number of floaters.
Floaters are like little hair-like strands floating around the eye. I could see them when I lay on the beach looking up at the sky.
We all have a few floaters, and they usually don't bother us. However, this experience became so annoying that I called my ophthalmologist.
He asked me if I had experienced any arcs of light or flashes. “I did, just this morning,” I replied.
He wanted to examine me immediately. He said he didn’t want me to put it off. I had no idea at the time why he was being so insistent about having me rush in right away, but I listened to him and headed right over to his office.
What Do Floaters and Flashes of Light Mean?
I learned a lot from this experience. I learned that when one experiences these symptoms it may mean either one of two things:
1. You might have a detached retina.
The detachment causes debris from pieces of tissue to float around the eye resulting in what we call "floaters."
If you have a detached retina, it can be repaired in most cases if taken care of very quickly. However, if you wait too long you can lose sight in that eye. Don’t wait! Rush to your ophthalmologist as soon as you experience flashes.
2. You might have a detached vitreous.
Another problem that causes the same symptoms with flashes is a detached vitreous. The vitreous is a jelly-like substance filling the eyeball. It’s transparent, and you see right through it.
As we get older, the vitreous tends to dry out and shrink. As it shrinks it may pull away from the rear of the eye. This is known as a Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD).
The retina covers the rear of your eye. It's like a movie screen on which images are focused. The retina transfers these images to the brain through the optic nerve. When the vitreous pulls away, the disturbance causes the retina to send signals to the brain that simulate arcs of light.
Why the Vitreous Pulls Away From the Retina
As we age the vitreous in each eyeball shrinks. People with myopia (near-sightedness) have a greater tendency for a shrinking vitreous to pull away and detach because the eyeball is elongated. That is, there is a longer distance from the lens to the retina.
Far-sighted people have the opposite shape of the eye, being shorter from front to rear. Therefore there's less chance for a shrinking vitreous to detach.
When the vitreous shrinks, it pulls on the retina and can rip part of the retina off the rear of the eyeball. This is serious. You need to have the retina repaired—and quickly!
The vitreous is connected to the retina only in three places:
- All around the border of the retina
- At the point where the optic nerve connects
- In the macula (the area of the retina where we have the most detail for central vision)
What Happens After a Vitreous Detachment?
When the vitreous detaches and separates from the rear of the eye, it usually leaves loose cells floating around. These are visualized as thread-like strands known as floaters.
If this is all that happens, it's not a serious problem. However, since we don’t know if the flashes are due to a detached vitreous or a detached retina, it’s important to get it checked out immediately and get the correct diagnosis. That’s why my doctor wanted me to run in to see him immediately.
As it turned out in my case, I just had a detached vitreous. My retina was fine. Nothing needed to be done. He told me that the floaters would disturb me less over time since the brain gets used to them and “learns” to ignore them.
He was right. I can tell I have a lot of floaters if I pay attention to them, but otherwise they don’t bother me anymore. It took about a year to stop being bothered by them.
Two Years Later: Flashes in My Other Eye
Two years later I had flashes in my other eye, and I suspected it was just the vitreous again. Nevertheless, I ran in to see my doctor since I knew that it could be a more serious problem.
There really is no way to tell if it's a detached retina since the symptoms are similar with those flashes of light, and there is never really any pain involved. There is no feeling of pulling when it happens, so it's best to get it checked out quickly when flashes suddenly occur.
Luckily for me, my doctor discovered that it was only a detached vitreous again in that eye too, just as before.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Other more serious diseases of the vitreous require more involved repair. Diabetes can cause problems where tiny blood vessels grow into the vitreous. In this case, if the vitreous shrinks and pulls away from the retina it can detach the retina. The tearing of these tiny blood vessels can cause bleeding into the vitreous. Although this is rare, it needs to be considered if one is diabetic.
Do the Flashes and Floaters Ever Disappear?
It's been over ten years since I had my detached vitreous. I still see arcs of light and flashes at times. My doctor explained that this comes from the vitreous pulling on the retina since it's not fully detached.
My ophthalmologist said that after the vitreous detaches, there is less of chance of having a detached retina in the future. Nevertheless, he said I'm never out of the woods as there still is a possibility for it to happen since it's not fully detached. Therefore, it's important to follow up between annual visits if I notice any changes.
I always have a routine annual checkup to be sure things are okay. However, my doctor says if I should ever experience more than the usual floaters, I should run right in to be examined. It could mean that the vitreous is pulling the retina off the rear of the eye. That would need immediate attention to reattach the retina.
I never had a problem with a detached retina, glad to say. In addition, I've been getting used to the floaters and hardly notice them anymore.
Treatment for Retina Detachment
If you have a detached retina and you get it diagnosed in time, it can be repaired with non-invasive surgery performed with lasers. Laser surgery is used for many eye-related refinements, not only to repair the retina.
More commonly known, lasers are also used to correct vision (known as Lasik surgery).
Lasers are also used to treat some forms of glaucoma, by a procedure called Laser Iridotomy. I actually had that done and wrote about it in an article about my glaucoma treatment.
Always Get Routine Eye Exams
We have wonderful technology today to help with serious diseases of the eye. Be proactive. Take care of your eyes by having regular annual checkups with an ophthalmologist.
© 2010 Glenn Stok
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