“Oh squiggly line in my eye fluid. I see you lurking there on the periphery of my vision. But when I try to look at you, you scurry away. Are you shy, squiggly line? Why only when I ignore you, do you return to the center of my eye? Oh, squiggly line, it’s alright, you are forgiven.”
Stewie Griffin, Family Guy
Eye floaters and flashes (sometimes called flashers) are common and generally benign. Most people will experience one or both phenomena on a semi-regular basis. In the vast majority of cases they are normal and nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Eye floaters are small specks, dots, or lines that tend to “float” throughout your vision. These are best seen against a plain light background, such as a cloudy sky or a white wall.
Floaters are made up of small parts of the vitreous gel (our “eye fluid”) that has thickened and clumped together. These clumps float throughout the eye, forming the floaters that we commonly see. However, when you see a floater you aren’t actually seeing the gel- you are seeing the shadow that it casts on the retina.
In most cases, eye floaters are normal and are not cause for concern. However, if you experience a sudden increase in the frequency of floaters, it is strongly recommended that you see us immediately for a comprehensive eye exam1. This is doubly true if the floaters are also accompanied by flashes.
A sudden influx of floaters may indicate the development of certain eye conditions, including posterior vitreous detachments. These conditions can have temporary or even permanent impacts on your vision. A recent study has shown that up to 40% of people that experience a sudden influx of floaters had a posterior vitreous detachment, and 9% had a retinal tear.
The retina transmits sensory data to the brain via the ocular nerve. When the retina is physically stimulated, such as being pulled on by a muscle or manipulated via a developing eye condition, this stimuli is transferred to the brain the same way. However, the electrical data sent for physical stimulus doesn’t render as an image- just flashes of light. Those flashes are referred to as “eye flashes” or “flashers”.
When someone endures significant head trauma, such as a hard takedown in football, this can create flashes that people sometimes refer to as “seeing stars”.
Generally, eye flashes are more a cause for concern than floaters. Any instance of eye flashes should be discussed with an Optometrist, as it may indicate the development of serious eye diseases or ocular condition (such as a posterior vitreous detachment or a retinal tear).
We will perform a thorough eye exam, looking for any signs of eye diseases or other ocular concerns that you should be aware of. In most cases, the floaters/flashes are benign and nothing to be concerned with. However, as you may know, once vision is lost it generally cannot be recovered.
When it comes to your eyes, there is no such thing as being “too careful”!