Floaters and flashers could be signs of retinal detachment

Cobwebs. Flashing lights. Tree branches. Lightning bolts. These common sights, if uncommonly seen, can signal a serious eye condition that requires immediate treatment.
They can indicate a hole or detachment of the retina, the tissue layer that lines the inside of the eye and acts as sort of an optic nerve gateway to the brain. When the retina becomes detached, it pulls away from its normal position.
That can cause the spiky kinds of flashes, such as lightning bolts or branches, that don’t seem to go away. Another symptom is seeing “floaters,” small specks that appear to glide through one’s field of vision.
A detached retina is dangerous because the retina pulls away from the layer of blood vessels that provides oxygen to the eye. If left untreated it could lead to permanent eyesight loss.
A retinal detachment can come from a physical injury such as a blow to the head. Other times it occurs due to age, and heredity can play a factor. It also occurs more often in people who have had cataract surgery or other eye diseases or disorders.

There are three types of retinal detachment:
  • Rhegmatogenous: This is the most-common type of retinal detachment, in which a tear or cut in the retina permits fluid to separate the retina from the retinal pigment epithelium. That’s the layer of cells that provides nutrition to the retina.
  • Tractional: A less common occurrence is when scar tissue on the retina contracts and causes the separation.
  • Exudative: This when the retina becomes inflamed because of disease and fluid can leak, again causing separation.

A similar, but not as threatening, condition is a separating of the vitreous, or the watery part of the eye, known as posterior vitreous detachment. In this case, floaters eventually may lessen.

Still, it’s important to be checked immediately if you see floaters.

Retinal detachment can be treated, but it’s imperative that it be done at the first occurrence of symptoms to increase the chance of repair and protecting eyesight.

Smaller holes can be treated with laser surgery or by employing cryopexy. In laser surgery, tiny “burns” are made around the holes in the retina to put the retina back in its place, while cryopexy accomplished this task through freezing the afflicted area.

Being referred right away to a retina specialist is the best thing you can do. It can be diagnosed and treated. Most times the patient will go to the operating room that day or the following morning.

Dr. Randall McLaughlin is an optometrist and associate professor of clinical ophthalmology in the Department of Ophthalmology at The Ohio State University. He provides ocular examinations and contact lens fittings for patients and serves as the primary visual consultant for Ohio State’s Department of Athletics.

Live healthier and stay inspired.

Get tips from Ohio State experts right to your inbox.