Seeing stars: WGECC’s retinologist on why floaters and flashes might merit a closer look
“Seeing stars” is a mythic symptom or lovesickness (or migraine). But have you ever experienced a very non-magical twinkling in your eyes, in the form of floaters or flashes? Visual floaters often look like black pepper spots or squiggly lines, while light flashes (technically known as photopsias) look something like fireworks or starbursts. Be assured, this is a perfectly normal experience.
Referred to as posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), this condition is most common between the ages of 45 and 60. What causes it? PVD occurs with the gradual breakdown of vitreous gel filling the back portion of the eye. In children, the vitreous is a solid gel substance. But with time, the vitreous tends to liquefy and shrink slightly, often causing it to “unglue” from the retina (the thin layer of nerve tissue in the back of the eye responsible for vision), forming clumps within the eye. So, with a floater or flash, what you’re actually seeing is the shadows these clumps cast on the retina. More seriously, when the vitreous is detaching from the retina’s surface, there is risk of a rip (retinal tear).
Visually speaking, the retina is a big deal. If you imagine your eye as a camera, the retina is the film. It transforms light into nerve signals which are then transmitted to the brain for interpretation.
Seeing floaters doesn’t necessarily mean you have retinal damage. In the overwhelming majority of cases, PVD is harmless. But still, there is a sliver of a chance (10-15 percent) that you might develop a retinal tear. If this occurs, the liquefied vitreous can seep underneath the edges of the tear and lead to retinal detachment (RD), which can then lead to permanent blindness, especially if it is not treated quickly.
Fortunately, retinal detachment is treatable, and in over 90 percent of the cases, the treatment is successful. Still, it is preferable to treat a retinal tear (as opposed to RD), since it can be repaired without setting foot in the operating room.
Like most things in life, problems are best solved when caught and corrected early. So, if you begin to notice flashes and floaters, it is important to contact your ophthalmologist immediately. A thorough ophthalmic exam will help identify the source of the problem and avoid serious visual damage.
Dr. Nicholas Mayfield, specializing in diseases and surgery of the retina and vitreous, contributed to reporting.