It may be disconcerting to see dark specks and flecks in your vision that seem to move with you no matter which way you turn, but are these floaters, as they’re known, actually dangerous? Generally not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them seriously.
At Retina Specialists, with five locations in and around Dallas, Texas, our expert team of ophthalmologists understands the intricacies of floaters, their potential causes, and their treatment. They’re here to explain what these dark specks mean and when you should come in for an urgent appointment.
What causes floaters, and what puts you at risk?
Floaters happen for a number of reasons, some of which are innocuous and some of which require immediate attention. The most common reasons follow:
Your body changes as you age, often not in ways that are enjoyable or comfortable.The middle of your eyeball contains a chamber filled with a gel-like material, called the vitreous humor. Floaters are small, solidified parts of that humor. As you get older, the vitreous naturally begins to shrink; the movement causes the particles to drift.
In the back of the eye lies the retina, the light-sensitive tissue that converts incoming light into electrical signals that are carried by the optic nerve to the brain. As vitreal floaters move, they can pass in front of the macula (the central region of the retina), casting a shadow or shape. The retina processes the shadow along with the rest of what you’re looking at, and your brain packages everything into the final image, meaning you “see” the spot.
Vitreal floaters are extremely common, and when they’re the cause of the dark spots, you generally don’t need treatment. Eventually, they settle to the bottom of the humor, and you won’t see them as readily. However, if you get a sudden burst of floaters, you should get your eyes checked as soon as possible to determine if they are or aren’t caused by something more serious.
Posterior uveitis is an inflammation of the uvea in the back of the eye. It can result from an infection, inflammatory disease, or a number of other conditions, and it releases debris into the vitreous that you perceive as floaters. A course of steroids can calm the inflammation.
Sometimes when the vitreous shrinks, it pulls on the retina with such force that the retinal tissue tears, releasing a host of floaters. Because a tear may lead to a retinal detachment, — which can potentially cause vision loss — this is an emergency situation, and you need to come into the office as soon as you can.
A retinal detachment occurs when fluid from the inner eye seeps through a retinal tear. The pressure inside the retinal tissue builds until the entire retina pulls away from its supporting tissue.
Retinal detachments usually come on suddenly, often as a result of a blow to the head from a car accident or a sports injury. Detachments present a greater-than-normal level of floaters, as well as other symptoms that include flashes of light and shadows obscuring your vision. As with a retinal tear, this is an emergency situation. If you see sudden floaters along with flashing lights, come into the office immediately or go to the nearest ER, as without prompt treatment, you may lose your vision.
A hemorrhage refers to a bleed, and bleeding into the vitreous body can be caused by many things, the most common being hypertension, blocked blood vessels, and eye injuries. It also occurs often with diabetic retinopathy, a condition that weakens the blood vessels in your retina. The floaters you see in this case are blood cells in the vitreous humor.
If your floaters are due to age-related vitreous detachments, the doctors at Retina Specialists take a wait-and-see approach, as they’re not at all dangerous. However, if they impact your ability to see clearly, we can provide laser therapy to disrupt them, intraocular injections to reduce swelling, or a vitrectomy, a surgical procedure that removes the damaged portion of the vitreous body.
If a retinal tear is the cause, a laser procedure or cryotherapy (freezing) can prevent progression. If the retina has become detached, we perform a number of minimally invasive surgeries to repair and reattach the tissue; the one we use depends on the exact nature of the detachment.
If you’re experiencing floaters in your visual field, it’s always best to be cautious and get them checked out. Give Retina Specialists a call at any of our locations to schedule a consultation with one of our ophthalmologists, or book online with us today.