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more articles by Schwartz, Peter S. , MD  |  author's bio

Flashers and Floaters in Field of Vision are Common

Flashers and Floaters in Field of Vision are Common

By Peter Schwartz, MD


Flashing lights and floaters at the corner of the eye are a fairly common occurrence for aging adults. Flashers and floaters can be benign and relatively harmless, or they can herald a significant pathological process in the back of the eye, which left unchecked can lead to loss of vision or major surgery. The only way to know if flashing light or floaters in your field of vision are benign or significant is to have a doctor dilate your eyes and examine them thoroughly.


What’s happening in my eye to cause flashing light?


The inside of the eye, behind the pupil, is filled with a clear, vitreous jelly. Normally this jelly is attached to the inside lining of the eye, called the retina. Because the jelly is clear we don’t notice it; however, for various reasons the consistency of the jelly may begin to change and start to pull on the retina. This traction on the retina, which is painless, sends a sensation of light to the brain that we see as flashers. People typically describe these as non-colored sparkles of light in one corner of the field of vision, usually affecting one eye.


When are flashers benign?


When the vitreous jelly inside the eye tugs on the retina causing flashers, the preferred outcome is that the vitreous lets go or detaches from the retina. When this occurs, people often notice a floater in the eye.


What are floaters?


Floaters are made of dense pieces of vitreous, clusters of glial cells that support the retina’s health, or blood cells. These tiny bits of matter float in the vitreous jelly, casting a shadow on the retina, which the brain perceives as a floater. As we move the eye, the floater moves. People describe them as looking like little bugs, cobwebs, donuts, tadpoles, or fishhooks.


Floaters are an annoyance; they can drift around in the field of vision for a long period of time. Most people successfully learn to ignore them; eventually many floaters drop down out of the field of vision. There is, at this point in time, no safe procedure offered to remove floaters.


Who is at risk for vitreous detachments?


Risk increases with age because the jelly inside the eye changes with the aging process. About 25 percent of people between 60 and 70 years of age have vitreous detachments. In the population over 70 years old, about 65 percent experience vitreous detachments. Other risk factors for vitreous detachment include people who are nearsighted and anyone who has suffered blunt trauma to the eye or eye surgery.


When are flashers more serious?


Flashers in the eye can be quite significant when the vitreous jelly inside the eye tugs on the retina and instead of detaching from the retina, causes a tear in the retina. This is serious because a tear can progress to full retinal detachment, causing loss of vision.


How is a retinal tear treated?


If a retinal tear is discovered immediately, before retinal detachment occurs, the ophthalmologist can perform laser treatment in the office. This procedure, which is painless, involves using a small laser beam to create scars around the retinal tear. This seals and contains the tear and typically prevents it from progressing to a full retinal detachment. When retinal detachment occurs, major ophthalmologic surgery is required to attempt to reattach the retina.


Are flashing lights in the field of vision always indicative of eye problems?


No, flashing lights are not always ocular in origin. People experiencing a TIA (a transient ischemic attack, which may be an early warning sign of impending stroke) sometimes report flashing lights. Migraine headaches and other intracranial processes can also cause light flashes in the field of vision.


If you do see flashing lights, don’t be overly alarmed because they are quite common and often benign. But do see your doctor as soon as possible to rule out a retinal tear. He or she will want to you again in a few weeks for a follow-up visit.


Dr. Schwartz is board certified in ophthalmology and is fellowship trained in pediatric ophthalmology. He is a member of the medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and treats both pediatric and adult patients. His practice is located at 2333 Triphammer Road in Ithaca and he can be reached at (607) 266-7600. Dr. Schwartz graduated with distinction from Cornell and went on to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, where he also graduated with honors. Following his ophthalmology residency at Mount Sinai, Dr. Schwartz went to Children’s Hospital of Michigan for a fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology. He also served on the teaching faculties of two of the country’s premier teaching hospitals, the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary and Mount Sinai Medical Center.





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