Flashing lights in the eye are more commonly known as ‘seeing stars,’ ‘floaters,’ or even ‘squiggly things.’ Still, no matter what you call them, they all have a medical background, physiological causes and a set of risks attached to them. In this article, we will debunk the myths around flashing lights in the eye and detail the truth concerning them.
What Are the Flashing Lights in the Eye That We See?
It’s a bit hard to describe them, but most people seem to characterize flashing lights in the eye as small sparkles, fireworks, or even lightening they see right in front of their eyes. Other patients say that they look like jagged lines or heat waves that pass along in a matter of milliseconds.
Flashes are related to the more frequent floaters, and they both have something to do with the gel inside your eye. Therefore, let’s talk about that first, so that we can better understand what causes both the flashes and the floaters.
The human eyeball is filled with a clear gel called the vitreous humor or, simpler than that, the vitreous. You can find it between the lens and the retina. It appears as a mass, colorless, completely transparent and gel-like as far as density goes. Unlike more fluid parts of the human eye, which the body replenishes continuously, the vitreous is very stagnant in its chamber.
As a consequence, if you manage to get something in there, such as blood, clumps of cells or other specks of material, they will have to be removed in the operation room for fear of infection or damaging the vitreous itself. Apart from that, as we progress age-wise, the vitreous loses its gel-like quality and becomes a lot more liquid. Therefore, it may even collapse. But, for now, let’s go back to our main topic, the flashing lights in the eye and see how they connect to the vitreous.
When the gel pulls on the retina or rubs against it, which should not happen since they don’t usually touch, that’s when you literally see sparks. The experience translates visually into bolts of lightning or seeing stars as if you were suddenly hit in the head.
The flashes can appear to you on an on-again-off-again basis for a few weeks or even months. However, as we advance in old age, these sparks start to happen more and more. If you notice them, you need to visit your ophthalmologist as soon as possible.
The vitreous is responsible for the ‘floaters’ we see as well. They have two causes. Floaters are either the foreign bodies that manage to find their way into the vitreous or clumps of cells. This is what you are actually seeing. The gel has clumped in some locations and has formed tiny dots, cobwebs or lines.
Even though it appears as if you are seeing them right in front of your eye, they are actually inside it. The things we see are the shadows they have cast on the retina. In this case, the retina itself acts like a movie screen onto which the floaters cast their projections.
What Are the Symptoms of Flashing Lights in the Eye?
Fortunately for all of us, the symptoms are as straightforward as they can possibly be. You either detect the flashes themselves or have trouble seeing as well as you did so far. For example, if your vision is suddenly impaired as if you pulled a dark curtain over your eyes, then it might be time for a visit to the ophthalmologist.
What Causes the Flashing Lights in the Eye?
As noted above, the flashes, as well as the floaters, are caused by changes in the vitreous gel. It usually shrinks, thickens or liquefies as we get older causing the gel to clump in some locations. The particles partially block the light from passing through the vitreous and reaching the retina. They then cast shadows on it which appear as floaters to us or make us see flashing lights.
It can also happen that the vitreous gel sometimes pulls and rubs on the retina because it is now very thick. Therefore, it causes some visual effects which we have come to call flashing lights in the eye. The patient usually experiences them for a few weeks or months on and off. After that, they tend to go away on their own.
If you are experiencing both flashing lights in the eye and floaters, then this condition might be a sign of PVD or Posterior vitreous detachment. It happens when the vitreous gel has literally pulled away from the retina and now there are all sorts of debris getting into it. If you believe this is what you are experiencing, then you need to see your eye doctor.
Oncoming migraines or strong headaches can also be the cause of flashing lights in the eye. If that is the case, then the flashes themselves will appear to you as jagged lines or shimmers of heat. As far as duration goes, they typically last between 10 and 20 minutes.
What Is the Best Treatment for Flashing Lights in the Eye?
Luckily for all of us, time is the best medicine when it comes to both flashing lights in the eye and floaters. If you believe you have these, don’t panic. The simplest way to determine if they really are there or not is for you to look at a plain and light-colored surface. That is when they are both most visible.
Therefore, take a look at the blue sky, an empty wall in front of you or at a piece of paper. If you see some squiggly lines or visual effects which resemble lightning bolts, then you are experiencing floaters or flashing lights or both.
Typically, they do not require any kind of treatment, so don’t panic. The sparks will fade away. As for the floaters, most people stop noticing them after a while because the brain trains itself to filter any interference that might appear in our field of vision.
However, if the flashes or the floaters simply refuse to go away try to roll your eyes around for a bit. This will move the vitreous gel inside the eyeball around for a bit. Therefore, it might make the nuisances go away.
There is also a medical procedure which you can undergo. It implies the surgeons removing the vitreous gel entirely from your eye and replacing it with a type of saline solution. Therefore, it also goes by the name of vitrectomy. However, it not advised that you go through with it. It’s a very serious operation that might have damaging results. Doing it just because of a few flashing lights in the eye or a floater is just not worth such a significant risk.
Let’s go back to this condition for a bit, seeing as it is a serious one which deserves more of our attention. As mentioned above, retinal detachment can sometimes be the cause of flashing lights in the eye. Here are a few details about this syndrome.
If the vitreous gel thickens too much, then it becomes a lot heavier. Therefore, it starts to tug on the retina until it literally detaches it from the eyeball. Should something like this ever happen, then it might partially or entirely affect your vision.
The symptoms which lead to retinal detachment are as follows.
- Blurred or distorted vision.
- Losing your peripheral vision. It can appear as if you have a curtain or a shadow around your visual field. Therefore, you can only see the middle of the picture. In time, these shadows or curtains can and probably will move toward the center of the visual field.
- Experiencing a sudden increase in the number of floaters or flashing lights which you experience. The same goes for seeing a lot of them all of a sudden. Basically, when you see one or two from time to time, that is normal. Everybody gets them. However, when their numbers increase dramatically, you need to see a doctor.
When it comes to retinal detachment as a cause of the flashing lights in the eye you are experiencing, surgery is the only answer. In fact, you should know that time is of the essence here. The sooner the doctor diagnoses you, the better. If you can sit for the operation on the same day, that’s even better. Therefore, analyze the flashes of lights and see what they’ve got to tell you.
If you are having flashing lights and/or floaters in your vision, you should call your eye doctor immediately and schedule an appointment. You need a dilated eye exam to make sure that you do not have a torn retina or retinal detachment.
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