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
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
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
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.
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.