Understanding Floaters in the Eyes
Life s little annoyances…there are many. And it seems as though the older we get
the more there are. One common age-related nuisance that is particularly bothersome
appearing around the fifth or sixth decade (often much earlier)
is the vitreous floater.
It usually goes something like this. You re reading the newspaper or a book
and suddenly you see a speck of
something fly across the page. When you move your eyes to follow the speck
it moves out of vision. It happens again and this time you think maybe it s one of those tiny insects buzzing around your face. You take a few swats but soon realize that there is no flying insect in the vicinity.
You glance back at your reading material and there it is again
almost as if there were bugs flying around inside your eye. “What s going on?” you wonder aloud. Now you re concerned
bordering on anxious. You look around the room
but notice the annoying floating speck only when you direct your eyes at something brightly illuminated
such as a white wall
or page in a book.
Some people report seeing more than just a tiny flying speck. In fact
many individuals with vitreous floaters report seeing large amounts of connected floating debris that form dots
lines or web-like thread patterns resembling a spider web. Typically
they ll report how they can even “chase” these elusive particles around just by changing the position of their eyes. Usually when the eye moves toward the floater
it moves away
like trying to catch a shadow.
One thing is for sure
when most people first start to see floaters
they are terrified and convinced that they are about to lose either their eyesight or their sanity!
What s going on?
Let me simplify. Picture a basketball…perfectly round and hard. The ball maintains its shape because of the air that fills it. Instead of air
the eyeball is filled with a substance called vitreous humor. (This humor has nothing to do with being funny. In this case
humor is a word borrowed from Latin
meaning liquid.) If you could hold vitreous humor in the palm of your hand
you d see that it resembles clear jello that has been out of the refrigerator for a while.
When we are young
the vitreous humor filling our eyeball is relatively firm and transparent…sort of like perfectly clear jello when it s holding its form. If you take the jello out of the refrigerator
it eventually begins to soften. The same is true for the vitreous. As we age
it becomes much less firm. It begins to shrink and become somewhat liquefied
being able to freely slosh around inside the eyeball.
Instead of one solid body
the vitreous now separates into clumps and strands. By moving the eyes
if the lighting conditions are just right
many people can actually see these clumps and strands as they go floating past their line of vision or in their side vision. This terrifying experience is what usually sends people rushing to their eye doctor for an explanation.
the aging of the vitreous and the subsequent sighting of floaters is a benign situation. By far
most people will not experience any further difficulties. However; there are other reasons for the appearance of this vitreous debris. It s possible that
if the vitreous moves around a little too vigorously
it can tug at the underlying retina a little too much
causing it to tear. Also
the floating debris could be by-products of inflammation or red blood cells.
What should you do?
If you suddenly start to notice floating particles or shadows in your line of vision
it s probably a good idea to let your eye doctor take a look. Ditto
for those of you who have had floaters for a long time and are now noticing a big increase in their presence. Another warning sign: flashing lights in your side vision
which could mean that your retina is being tugged on
and that could lead to a retinal tear
or even worse
a retinal detachment. Have it checked out.
Just keep in mind that
most of the time
the appearance of vitreous floaters is just another part of the aging process that will bring you no further trouble. Occasionally; however
floaters are a warning of a more serious problem. When in doubt
make an appointment to see your eyecare practitioner.