Eye Floaters and Flashes: Symptoms of Posterior Vitreous Detachment

I experienced Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD) in the Eyes, so I can tell you about the warning signs and symptoms.
A Posterior Vitreous Detachment occures as the vitreous shrinks from age, and pulls away from the rear of the eye.
A Posterior Vitreous Detachment occures as the vitreous shrinks from age, and pulls away from the rear of the eye. | Source

One day when I woke up I experienced flashes with arcs of light near my peripheral vision. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it might be some kind of migraine.

Later in the day my glasses seemed to be dirty. As much as I tried to clean them I still saw a cloudiness over everything.

I thought it was my glasses. But it was my eyes.

I Suddenly Had a Lot of Floaters

Once I realized my glasses were indeed clean it became obvious that the disturbance was really my right eye. Then I realized that the disturbance was actually a huge number of floaters.

Floaters are like little hair-like strands floating around the eye. I could see them when I lay on the beach looking up at the sky.

We all have a few floaters and they usually don't bother us. But this experience became so annoying that I called my ophthalmologist.

He asked me if I had experienced any arcs of light or flashes. “I did, just this morning,” I replied.

He wanted to examine me immediately. He said he didn’t want me to put it off. I had no idea at the time why he was being so meticulous about having me rush in right away. But I did.

Detailed image of vitreous pulling away from the retina.
Detailed image of vitreous pulling away from the retina. | Source

I learned a lot from that experience. When one experiences flashes of light it may mean one of two things...

(1) You might have a detached retina.

The detachment causes debris from pieces of tissue to float around the eye resulting in having more floaters.

If you have a detached retina it can be repaired in most cases if taken care of very quickly. But if you wait, you can lose your sight in that eye. Don’t wait. Rush to your ophthalmologist as soon as you experience flashes.

There is another problem that causes the same symptoms of flashes...

(2) You might have a detached vitreous.

The vitreous is a jelly-like substance filling the eyeball. It’s transparent and you see right through it. As we get older, the vitreous tends to dry out and shrink. As it shrinks it may pull away from the rear of the eye. This is known as a Posterior Vitreous Detachment (PVD).

The retina covers the rear of your eye. It's like a movie screen on which images are focused. The retina transfers these images to the brain through the optic nerve. When the vitreous pulls away, the disturbance causes the retina to send signals to the brain that simulate arcs of light.

Why the Vitreous Pulls Away From the Retina

As we age the vitreous in each eyeball shrinks. People with myopia (near-sightedness) have a greater tendency for a shrinking vitreous to pull away and detach because the eyeball is elongated. That is, there is a longer distance from the lens to the retina.

Far-sighted people have the opposite shape of the eye, being shorter from front to rear. And therefore there's less chance for a shrinking vitreous to detach.

When the vitreous shrinks, it pulls on the retina and can rip part of the retina off the rear of the eyeball. This is serious. You need to have the retina repaired -- and quickly!

The vitreous is only connected to the retina in three places: All around the border of the retina, at the point where the optic nerve connects, and in the macula. The macula is the area of the retina where we have the most detail for central vision.

What Happens After a Vitreous Detachment?

When the vitreous detaches it leaves loose cells floating around. These floaters are seen as thread-like strands as in this simulation.
When the vitreous detaches it leaves loose cells floating around. These floaters are seen as thread-like strands as in this simulation. | Source

When the vitreous detaches and separates from the rear of the eye, it usually leaves loose cells floating around. These are known as floaters.

If this is all that happens, it's not a serious problem. But since we don’t know if the flashes are due to a detached vitreous or a detached retina, it’s important to get it checked out immediately and get the right diagnosis. That’s why my doctor wanted me to run in to see him without delay.

As it turned out in my case, I just had a detached vitreous. My retina was fine. Nothing needed to be done. He told me that the floaters will disturb me less over time since the brain gets used to them and “learns” to ignore them.

He was right. I can tell I have a lot of floaters if I pay attention to them, but otherwise they don’t bother me anymore. It took about a year to stop being bothered by them.

Two years later I had flashes in my left eye and I suspected it was just the vitreous again. But I ran in to see my doctor since it could have been a more serious problem.There really is no way to tell if it's a detached retina since the symptoms are similar with those flashes of light, and there really never is any pain involved. There is no feeling of pulling when it happens. So it's best to get it checked out quickly when flashes suddenly occur.

Lucky for me my doctor discovered that it was only a detached vitreous again in that eye too, just as before.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There are other more serious diseases of the vitreous that require more involved repair. Diabetes can cause problems where tiny blood vessels grow into the vitreous. In this case If the vitreous shrinks and pulls away from the retina it can detach the retina. The tearing of these tiny blood vessels can cause bleeding into the vitreous. Although this is rare, it needs to be considered if one is diabetic.

Do the Flashes and Floaters Ever Disappear?

It's been over ten years since I had my detached vitreous. And I still see arcs of flashes at times. That comes from the vitreous that is still pulling on the retina since it's not fully detached.

My ophthalmologist said that after the vitreous detaches, there is less of chance of having a detached retina as time goes on. Nevertheless, she said I'm never out of the woods as there still is a possibility for it to happen. So it's important to follow up between annual visits if you notice any changes.

I always have a routine annual checkup to be sure things are okay. But my doctor says if I should ever experience more than the usual floaters that I should run right in to see her. That might mean that the vitreous is pulling the retina off the rear of the eye, and that needs immediate attention to repair and reattach the retina.

I never had a problem with a detached retina, glad to say. And I've been getting used to the floaters and hardly notice them anymore.

What if the Retina Detaches? The use of Laser Surgery

If you have a detached retina and you get it diagnosed in time, it can be repaired with non-invasive surgery. That’s done with lasers. Laser surgery is used for many eye-related refinements, not only to repair the retina.

More commonly known, lasers are also used to correct vision (known as Lasik Surgery).

Lasers are also used to treat some forms of glaucoma, by a procedure called Laser Iridotomy. I actually had that done and wrote about it in an article about my glaucoma treatment.

Always Get Routine Eye Exams

We have wonderful technology today to help with serious diseases of the eye. But remember that nothing compares to taking care of your eyes as does having regular annual checkups with an ophthalmologist.

© 2010 Glenn Stok

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Comments 3 comments

Princessa profile image

Princessa 5 years ago from France

Very interesting information. I am glad I read it, as it looks very important to contact your doctor as soon as possible if you have the symptoms, rather than just wait and see what happens. In a way it is scary to know that such things can happen and have such a long term effect in vision.

SteveoMc profile image

SteveoMc 5 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

Very good information, my doctor just asked me to get an eye exam just because I haven't had an exam for a couple of years. The warning signs you talked about are good information to have. Rated up.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 5 years ago from United States

I think it can be quite frightening when something goes wrong with our eyes. I think you did a wonderful job of telling us of your experience and explaining the process. I have a friend that had a detached retina which ended his career as a helicopter pilot. He did seek immediate care but things didn't go well. I'm glad that you have learned to live with your situation very well. Rated up.

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    Glenn Stok profile image

    Glenn Stok1,115 Followers
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    Glenn Stok doesn’t take health and wellness for granted. He has a keen interest in understanding what doctors fail to share with patients.

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