Looking Through a Glass Darkly
Floaters are occasional small specks or clouds moving in the field of vision of the eye. These specks are especially common when looking directly at a light background or plain background such as a blank wall, or when feeling light-headed.
Floaters are actually tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous—the clear jelly-like fluid that fills the inner membrane of the eye. Floaters come in different shapes, such as little dots, cobwebs, or circles.
The small specks may appear to be in front of the eyes, but they are actually floating inside. What you could see are the shadows cast on the retina—the nerve layer at the back of the eye that senses light and allows you to see.
When people reach middle age, the vitreous gel may start to shrink or thicken, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. The condition occurs when the vitreous gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, which results to posterior vitreous detachment.
The appearance of floaters may be alarming, especially if they appear suddenly. You may want to consult an ophthalmologist if floaters suddenly develop, especially if you are over 45 years of age.
Seriousness of Floaters
Floaters are nothing to worry about. Everyone experiences them from time to time and they cause no ill effects. They are really annoying, nevertheless, which is why treating the condition would greatly help your sight.
Specks in front of the eye are normally visible when looking into a light or plain background. However, if they start becoming visible in every background and have increased in number, and are accompanied by occasional loss of vision, it becomes imperative to seek medical assistance right away. These could be symptoms of retinal detachment—a disorder of the eye in which the retina peels away from the underlying layer of support tissue.
If the retina is detached or has a hole in it, you would experience flashing lights before your eyes and you would see numerous floaters. These two symptoms are often followed by a loss of vision, so a medical consult should be on top of your list even before a couple of symptoms manifest. You would require surgery if there are holes in the retina or if it had been detached.
Causes of Floaters
Any damage that could cause foreign materials to enter the vitreous humor of the eye could result in the formation of floaters. Here are the most common causes of floaters:
Vitreous Syneresis. The most common cause of floaters is vitreous humor shrinkage. The solid portion consists of hyaluronic acid and a network of collagen, with the former retaining water molecules. When the hyaluronic acid is forced to release its trapped water, it liquefies the gel. The collagen then breaks down into fibrils that ultimately form the floaters.
Posterior Vitreous Detachments and Retinal Detachments. When the liquefied vitreous body loses support, its framework contracts, which leads to posterior vitreous detachment. During the detachment, the retina is mechanically stimulated by the shrinking vitreous that causes the person to see random flashes.
Sometimes, the release of the vitreous around the optic nerve head engenders the formation of a large floater, usually ring-shaped. Because of this, part of the retina might be torn off which results to a process known as retinal detachment. This condition would cause blood to leak into the vitreous, which could appear as numerous small dots in the person’s field of vision. Retinal detachment requires medical attention right away, or it may cause blindness.
Hyaloid Artery Regression. Hyaloid artery—an artery running through the vitreous humor during the fetal stage of development—regresses during the third trimester of pregnancy that may cause the formation of floaters. Its disintegration could sometimes leave cell matter.
Tear Film Debris. There are times when dark specks in the tear film of the eye cause the formation of debris. Technically, tear film debris are not floaters, but they do look similar to floaters in the eyes of the sufferer. Ocular allergies or wearing contact lenses may cause this condition. By looking at the effect of blinking, you could differentiate between materials in the vitreous humor and debris in the tear film. Floaters are largely unresponsive to blinking, while debris in the tear film move quickly with blinking..
Other common causes of floaters include cystoid macular edema and steroid hyalosis. The former occurs when fluid and protein deposits collect under the macula of the eye—the yellowish central area of the retina—that causes it to swell. The swelling may affect the person’s central vision. The latter is an anomaly of the vitreous humor where calcium clumps attach themselves to the collagen network.
When to Seek Medical Assistance
- New, large floater(s) or showers of floaters suddenly appear
- You see sudden flashes of light
- You notice other symptoms, such as loss of side vision
If any of these symptoms manifest, consult your ophthalmologist right away. No need to delay an appointment, or it might cost you your vision. You would not want to live the rest of your life regretting about a doctor’s appointment, would you?
Treatment for Floaters
Floaters become more common as people grow older. While most cases of floaters are not serious, you should consult your ophthalmologist on a regular basis to make sure your eye is in tip-top shape, especially if there are floaters or if you had them before. Treatment for floaters depends on the underlying condition.
There is no specific treatment for the separation of the vitreous gel from the retina. Medications could help alleviate symptoms of migraine if the condition worsens. You would need laser therapy or surgery to repair retinal tears.
You could, on your own, maintain a healthy pair of eyes without the bothersome floaters, you just have to maintain a healthy diet. However, if your condition has worsened, no use sticking to a healthy diet alone. By then you should have consulted your ophthalmologist for further instructions.