Answers provided by Dr. Mitchell Gossman, M.D., ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota, St. Cloud.
What are floaters? Are they anything to be worried about?
Floaters are shadows, spots, and strings that you might see from one or both eyes. It is often best seen by you against a uniformly colored background such as a painted wall or blue sky. It is caused by a degeneration in the “vitreous body” of the eye. The eye is much like a camera because it has the cornea and lens in the front of the eye that collect and focus light. This image is projected onto the retina in the back of the eye which is much like the film or sensor of a camera that detects the image and delivers it to either your computer or, in the case of your eye, to your brain. In a camera, there’s nothing but air between its lens and the film/sensor.
In the eye, it’s not air, it’s a gelatinous, transparent material similar in appearance to a gelatin like Jell-O. With aging, this vitreous gel often starts to develop little specks, strings, and other opacities that cast shadows on your retina, and you see them as a “floater.” That’s not just a layman’s term by the way -- eye doctors use that term as well.
If they are something that you’ve had for years, don’t be too concerned, but it would be wise to schedule a routine eye examination to check that and general eye health. If you have new floaters, this is something that should be seen sooner, especially if recent and of sudden onset. The reason for this is one of the first symptoms of a retinal tear or detachment can be floaters.
When the vitreous gel degenerates, often it starts to peel away from the inner wall of the eye, much like a bowl of Jell-O might shrink away from the sides of the bowl if it’s left uncovered. When this happens, it is common to see new floaters, which look like “bugs,” “specks,” “spiderweb,” or as if “gauze” is obstructing vision. These floaters may move when the eye is moved, which some describe as being like a windshield wiper going back and forth. As this progresses, the retina might be stimulated, and you might see lightning flashes. If this happens, an exam is needed to verify that there’s no retinal tear or detachment because these need surgery to prevent permanent loss of vision. If a detached retina develops, you would start to notice loss of peripheral vision.
At that exam, the eyes are dilated to see if this “vitreous detachment,” or even a “retinal detachment” is occurring. Sometimes floaters are too small to be seen easily on examination, but that’s only because floaters are highly magnified in your own eye and might be easier for you to see than the examiner. A future examination would be scheduled to monitor this if everything seems OK, or the condition is treated. More on floaters and what can be done about them in the next installment of Ask the Expert.
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Dr. Mitchell Gossman is a comprehensive ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota. The office is located at 628 Roosevelt Road, Suite 101, in St. Cloud. To make an appointment or to learn more, call 320-774-3789 or email email@example.com.
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