Recognize Six Risk Factors for Eye Floaters

Eye floaters look like black specks, strings or cobwebs that drift about when you move your eyes. They are tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous, the clear gel like fluid that fills the inside of your eye. They appear to be in front of the eye but are actually floating in the vitreous fluid inside the eye. What you see are the shadows they cast on the retina.

Risk factors include:

  1. Age over 50
  2. Nearsightedness
  3. Trauma to the eye
  4. Have had cataract surgery.
  5. Diabetic retinopathy, blood vessels in the retina damaged by high blood sugar.
  6. Inflammation inside the eye.

A few weeks after cataract surgery in my right eye, I had what seemed to be a very large black shape in front of my right eye. I called my eye doctor right away and saw him on an emergency basis. His examination ruled out a detached retina or any other serious problem. Now a little more than a year later, It is very small and not always noticeable.

If you develop new floaters or notice a sudden increase in the number of them, contact your ophthalmologist immediately — especially if you also see flashes of light or lose your peripheral vision. These can be symptoms of a retinal detachment, which are sight threatening and require prompt attention. Retinal detachment describes an emergency situation when a layer of the retina at the back of the eye pulls away. The only treatment for a torn or detached retina is surgery.

When people reach middle age about 50 years old, the vitreous gel may start to thicken or shrink, forming clumps or strands inside the eye. The vitreous gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, causing a posterior vitreous detachment. The incidence of this phenomenon increases with age.

Most commonly these changes in the vitreous humor occur gradually. But sometimes a section of the vitreous humor will pull away from the retina suddenly, causing new shadows to appear all at once. You might also see flashes of light when the fine fibers in the vitreous humor tug on your retina.

Most of the time these shadows require no treatment. They are most noticeable when you look at a plain white background. I notice mine when reading a book or looking at a computer screen. They can be a nuisance, but most people learn to ignore them. I have.

If they significantly interfere with your vision, your doctor might suggest a surgical procedure to replace vitreous humor with a saltwater solution or a Laser procedure. Both involve serious risks, and are rarely recommended.

Can eye-floaters be prevented? Most of the literature suggests that they cannot. But if trauma is one cause and inflammation another then the process to form them can at least be slowed by wearing eye protection and ingesting appropriate antioxidants. The bottom line is, we should not take our eyes for granted and do everything in our power to protect them.

For references and suggested reading:

  • "eye disease." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011.
  • Go to retirement resources.

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