Take a good look at this sentence on your screen. Now look up at a blank wall. If you see spots, squiggles, or amoeba-like thingies suspended in the air or floating by, you’ve probably got eye floaters, or shadows on the retina (the part of the eye that acts like film in a camera). Floaters occur when the clear, gel-like fluid filling much of the eye begins to thicken or shrink, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). The specks and lines you see are really just the strands or clumps of cells in the gelatinous part of the eye, called the vitreous.
Most of the time floaters are simply an annoyance and do not represent a serious eye problem, according to Nathan Hamburger, MD, ophthalmologist at UCHEalth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Most people have them but learn to ignore them, says the National Eye Institute (NEI). Eye floaters are just one of a number of symptoms people experience that seem troubling but usually cause no harm.
Painless, but irritating
However, there’s no question these shadowy figures can be seriously annoying. Certain people are especially at risk. They include:
- People with diabetics.
- People who’ve had cataract surgery.
- People who are very nearsighted.
- People over the age of 50.
Usually, no treatment is recommended, says the NEI. In rare cases, when floaters seriously impair vision, surgery may be an option. A procedure called a vitrectomy, which involves removing the gel-like portion of the eye and its debris and then replacing it with a salt solution, may be performed, the NEI explains. But this, too, carries risks.
Now there’s hope on the horizon thanks to a laser treatment, according to research presented at AAO 2017, the 121st Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and published in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology. The treatment is known as YAG laser vitreolysis.
Promising laser treatment
In the first trial to evaluate the safety and efficacy of YAG laser vitreolysis, the researchers, ophthalmologists Jayanth S. Sridhar, MD, and Carl J. Danzig, MD, recruited 52 volunteers who experienced eye floaters. The doctors administered the actual procedure to 36 of the patients, while the rest got a “sham” procedure. Six months later, the researchers found that the procedure cleared up the floaters for the most part; the sham group had no change.
While the YAG laser vitreolysis shows promise—there were no complications from the treatment in the study—it was a small study with a follow-up limited to six months. The next steps are a bigger study with a longer-term follow-up to rule out potential problems like retinal detachment or damage. In addition, this study only allowed one treatment session; in clinical practice, it may require more than a single laser session to adequately address the patient’s floaters, once and for all. Find out more about what causes eye floaters in the first place.
A word of caution: If you notice a sudden increase in floaters, or if you see flashes of light in your field of vision, that could be a sign of a torn or detached retina—a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment, says the AAO. See your ophthalmologist immediately. Here are 39 things you can do to help preserve your eyesight as well as 11 signs your eyes might be in danger.