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Frequent Floaters and Flashes: Could They Be a Sign of a Torn Retina?

 Frequent Floaters and Flashes: Could They Be a Sign of a Torn Retina?

Preserving your vision is critical. Floaters (dark specks that move across your field of vision) can be a normal consequence of aging, but if they appear suddenly, especially if they’re accompanied by flashing lights, you need immediate medical help.

The expert team of ophthalmologists at Retina Specialists, with five locations in and around Dallas, Texas, specializes in diagnosing and treating eye diseases, including retinal tears and retinal detachments. They want to impress upon their patients that, if they experience a sudden host of floaters and flashing lights, they need to treat it as the medical emergency it is. Here’s why.

Seeing the light

To understand what floaters and flashes mean, it helps to know something about the eye’s anatomy. The best way to do that is to follow light as it moves through the eyeball. Ambient light first hits the cornea, a clear, curved, and tough membrane on the surface that protects the eye. The membrane’s transparency allows the light to pass through, while the curvature focuses it.

Next, the light moves through the anterior chamber, an area filled with aqueous humor, and then through the pupil to the lens, another transparent membrane that focuses the light more finely. Finally, it travels through the vitreous chamber containing a gel-like humor that holds the shape of the eye, hitting the light-sensitive retina at the back of the organ.

The retinal cells convert the focused images into electrical signals, which they send to the brain through the optic nerve located behind the tissue. Your brain then decodes the signals so you can visualize the image.

What is a retinal tear?

As we get older, the vitreous humor starts to shrink and thin out. Sometimes, as it contracts, it pulls on the retina so strongly that the retinal tissue tears. This releases a host of visual floaters, solidified parts of the humor that drift back and forth, casting a shadow on the retina as they pass by. Floaters aren’t dangerous in and of themselves, but they can be a sign of a serious condition, like a tear.

Frequent floaters and flashes

While many serious eye diseases, including glaucoma and macular degeneration, can cause vision loss, they have a gradual onset. This is not the case for retinal tears and detachments. If you suddenly see a large group of floaters and lots of flashing lights, it’s most likely due to a retinal tear or detachment — a medical emergency. If, as the vitreous shrinks, fluid from the eye leaks through a retinal tear, the pressure on the retinal tissue increases until the entire retina pulls away from its supporting tissue. Detached from its moorings, it can no longer send signals to the optic nerve, and you lose sight.

Retinal detachments most commonly occur suddenly, usually as a result of a blow to the head, as in a car accident or from playing sports. Symptoms include:

As with a retinal tear, this is an emergency situation. If you don’t receive prompt medical attention, you could experience permanent vision loss.

Can you save my vision?

If, upon seeing floaters and flashes, you get prompt medical attention, in most cases we can save your sight. We dilate your eye to view the retina directly and determine that it’s become detached. Once retinal detachment is diagnosed, we’re likely to perform one of two surgeries — or both.

1. Vitrectomy

In a vitrectomy, your ophthalmologist removes the vitreous that’s pulling on the retina, replacing it with a bubble of air, gas, or oil. The bubble helps push the retina back into place, which allows it to heal. If the doctor uses an oil bubble, they remove it several months later. If they use an air or gas bubble, you’ll have some restrictions: you won’t be able to travel by plane or go to high altitudes, and you won’t be able to scuba dive. The change in outside pressure in all three cases causes the gas to expand, increasing eye pressure.

2. Scleral buckle

With a scleral buckle, your ophthalmologist sews a band made of either rubber or soft plastic to the outside of your eyeball. It gently presses the eye inward and the retina back to the eye wall, where it can heal. Most doctors leave the buckle on permanently, but you won’t be able to see it.

If you see floaters and flashes, you have a medical emergency, and you need to come into Retina Specialists ASAP to save your sight. Call us at any of our locations for an emergency appointment, or book online.

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