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Retinal Detachments & Their Relation to Eye Flashes & Floaters

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Experiencing objects floating in our vision, or the sudden appearance of lights, can be alarming. With that being said, these occurrences are usually harmless.
The sensation of floating specs, dots, or lines in your vision are called floaters. The sudden appearance of flashing lights are called flashes.

What are Flashes & Floaters?

Although usually categorized as one condition, flashes and floaters are two separate occurrences. As you now know, floaters are small specks, dots, or clouds in our field of vision. Flashes, on the other hand, are the appearance of flashing lights (that twinkle, dance, or streak across our vision).

Floaters

Floaters are tiny clumps of cells or material inside the vitreous (the clear gel inside of our eye). Floaters appear to be in front of our eyes, but, they are actually floating inside of it. The reason we can see floaters is because they cast a shadow on the retina.

  • Causes. When we grow older, the vitreous gel may begin to shrink. As it does so, small clumps or strands inside our eyes begin to form, creating floaters.
  • Symptoms. Small dark specks, dots, clouds, lines, or cobweb-like shapes drifting in and out of your vision.

Flashes

Ever been hit hard in the head and “saw stars?” If so, you have experienced a sensation similar to flashes! Flashing lights or lightning streaks are considered flashes and may appear on and off for up to several months.

  • Causes. As the vitreous begins to shrink, it may pull on the retina. Due to this you may experience what looks like flashing lights or lightning streaks.
  • Symptoms. As previously stated, the symptoms of flashes are flashing lights and lightning streaks.

How Does a Retinal Detachment Tie Into This?

As the vitreous gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, a posterior vitreous detachment may occur. When this happens, it is possible for the retina to tear as the shrinking vitreous pulls away from it.
If it does, the tear may develop into a retinal detachment. Retinal detachments are extremely dangerous and may result in loss of vision.

Types of Retinal Detachment

There are three different types of retinal detachment:
 

  • Rhegmatogenous. A type of tear in the retina that allows fluid to get underneath it and separate it from the pigmented cell layer that nourishes the retina. Rhegmatogenous detachments are the most common retinal detachment.
  • Tractional. A tractional detachment happens when scar tissue on the retina’s surface contracts and causes it to separate from the retinal pigment epithelium (the pigmented cell layer described above), or RPE.
  • Exudative. A result of retinal disease, exudative detachments are when fluid leaks into the area underneath the retina.

 

Symptoms of a Retinal Detachment

Symptoms of a retinal detachment include:

  • One new, large floater
  • “Showers” of floaters
  • Loss of vision
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Sudden increase of flashes, especially persistent flashes

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above it is important you see your optometrist immediately in attempt to prevent further damage and to save your eyesight.

Treating Retinal Tears & Detachment

Tiny holes and tears in the retina are treated with laser surgery or cryopexy (freezing treatment) in the doctor’s office before they develop into a detachment. Retinal detachments, however, are treated through surgery.
With today’s technology and medical advances, 90% of retinal detachments can be successfully treated.

Written by Jennifer Sanchez

Dr. Jennifer Sanchez was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. She completed her Bachelor of Science Degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary and Doctor of Optometry Degree, with honours, at Southern California College of Optometry. Dr. Sanchez worked alongside optometrists at American Veteran Affairs Hospitals and Indian Health Services, and practiced co-management with ophthalmologists specializing in refractive and cataract surgery through clinical externship.
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