It may be disconcerting to see dark specks (floaters) and lightning bolts (flashes) in your visual field, which seem to move with you no matter which way you turn, but are these phenomena serious enough that you have to see an ophthalmologist? The answer is maybe, but you should always take them seriously.
At Retina Specialists, our expert team of ophthalmologists understands the intricacies of flashes and floaters, their potential causes, and their treatment. They’re here to explain what these visual disturbances mean and when you should come in for an urgent appointment at one of our five locations in and around Dallas, Texas.
What causes floaters, and are these causes dangerous?
Floaters happen for a number of reasons, some of which are completely benign and some of which require immediate attention. Here are the most common reasons:
Your body changes as you age, and with those changes, you may experience some uncomfortable effects. In the middle of your eyeball lies a chamber filled with a gel-like material, the vitreous humor. Floaters are small, solidified parts of the humor. As you age, the vitreous chamber naturally starts to contract, and the movement causes the small particles to drift.
The back of the eye contains the retina, the light-sensitive tissue that converts incoming light into electrical signals that are sent via the optic nerve to the brain. As vitreal floaters move, they may pass in front of the macula (the central 2% of the retinal tissue), casting a shadow or shape onto it. The macula processes the shadow along with the rest of what you see, and your brain compiles everything into the final image, meaning you “see” the floater.
Vitreal floaters are very common, and when they’re the cause of the dark spots, you generally don’t require any treatment. Eventually, they settle to the bottom of the chamber, and you won’t see them as readily. However, if you suddenly see a burst of floaters, you should make an appointment to come in as soon as possible so we can determine if they are or aren’t caused by something more serious.
Sometimes when the vitreous contracts, it tugs on the retina with such force that the retinal tissue tears, and that lets loose a host of floaters. Because a tear may lead to a retinal detachment — which can lead to vision loss — this is an emergency situation. You need to come into the office as soon as you can.
A retinal detachment happens when fluid from the inner part of the eyeball seeps through a retinal tear, increasing the pressure until the entire retina pulls away from its supporting tissue.
Retinal detachments usually happen suddenly, most commonly from a blow to the head from a car accident or sports injury. Detachments present a higher-than-normal level of floaters, as well as flashes of light and a gray curtain obscuring your vision. As with a retinal tear, this is a medical emergency. If you see a sudden burst of floaters along with flashing lights, come into the office immediately or go to the nearest ER. Without prompt treatment, you could lose your sight.
A hemorrhage refers to a bleed, and bleeding into the vitreous body is most commonly caused by hypertension, blocked blood vessels, and eye injuries. Hemorrhaging also occurs with diabetic retinopathy, a diabetes-related condition that weakens the blood vessels in your retina and can cause them to grow on the retinal tissue. The floaters you see are blood cells in the vitreous humor.
In addition to seeing your doctor about controlling your blood sugar levels, you need to come into Retina Specialists for an evaluation, as this condition, too, can rob you of sight.
What causes flashes, and are these causes dangerous?
Flashes appear like streaks of lightning across your vision or little twinkling specks of light that you’d describe as “seeing stars.”
Flashes also have a number of causes. One of these is migraine with aura. During the aura phase that precedes the pain phase, you might see zigzag lines or lightning bolts. These are not dangerous, but just a symptom of the underlying condition.
Flashes can also occur when the vitreous humor pulls or rubs your retina, and they’re a warning sign that you’re at risk of a retinal tear or detachment. You need to come into the office ASAP.
The bottom line? If you’re seeing flashes and/or floaters, come into the office to be evaluated. Your sight is too important to risk.
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.