Flashes and Floaters – What Do They Mean?

At Mandel Vision, we often see patients who come in complaining of seeing floating spots in front of their eyes.  Occasionally, these spots are accompanied by flashes of light.  This can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.  In order to understand this phenomenon, it’s helpful to know a bit about the anatomy of the eye.

Flashes and Floaters | Mandel Vision Blog PostThe vitreous is a jelly-like substance that gives the eye its spherical shape and acts as a sort of shock-absorber for the eye.  Through the normal aging process, the vitreous may liquefy.  This can create clumps of gel that can freely float around in the liquid vitreous.  When they pass in front of the retina, they cast a shadow which can appear like floating spots, or “floaters”.  The vitreous is attached to the retina of the eye.  The retina forms the innermost lining of the eye and consists mainly of nerve cells.  The retina is one of the most important components of the eye as it is largely responsible for vision.  The retina converts light rays from an object into signals which are sent to the brain via the optic nerve.  When the gel breaks away from the vitreous, it may tug on the retina which can cause brief flashes of light or “flickering” lights, typically in the peripheral vision.

Floaters can be annoying, but most are not vision threatening. Although they never truly go away, sometimes they settle out of your field of vision so that they are not visible.  However any new or different floaters must be evaluated. Floaters can be a sign of more serious diseases of the eye so they should always be evaluated by an Ophthalmologist.  Once floaters are evaluated by an ophthalmologist and deemed normal, it is up to you to monitor your vision for changes.  You need to see an ophthalmologist immediately If you experience the following:

  • A sudden change in vision
  • A change in the size, shape or amount of floaters
  • The onset of  flashes of light

Flashes of light may be a sign of a tear, a hole or a detachment of the retina.  A tear or a hole can be precursors to a retinal detachment which can cause permanent vision loss. This requires immediate surgical treatment by a retinal specialist.  At the onset of flashing lights, you should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist immediately.  An ophthalmologist will perform a thorough, dilated examination to determine whether a surgical consult with a retinal specialist is necessary.

You need to have any new floaters evaluated by an ophthalmologist to make sure there’s not a more serious eye condition present.  Flashes are usually a sign of some abnormality in the retina, which is more urgent and also requires an immediate visit to an ophthalmologist.  Remember, you’re your own best advocate when it comes to your eyes.  Don’t ignore changes in your vision.  See an ophthalmologist at the first sign of sudden changes.  Your best prognosis is always achieved by early intervention.

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