Reviewed by Alan Kozarsky on January 20, 2012

Sources

Lana Srur, MD, Bascom Palmer Eye Institute Jill Wells, MD, Emory Eye Center, Atlanta, GA

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Video Transcript

Narrator: If you've ever seen web-like or squirmy shapes or shadows moving through your plane of vision when you look at something brightly lit, then you've probably experienced a floater.

Jill Wells, MD: OK, let's take a look.

Narrator: Floaters are a common complaint, and eye doctors are used to explaining what they are to their patients.

Lana Srur, MD: Behind the lens you have the vitreous cavity, which is filled with a vitreous, jelly-like material. And that vitreous is attached to the retina, which is the back wall of the eye, at several different locations. And if that vitreous separates away from the back of the eye, the area where it was connected is visible as a floater.

Jill Wells, MD: When patients see the floater they're seeing these little clumps or strands of vitreous.

I can see your floater.

Jill Wells, MD: For Miss DeWitt, this just happened a couple of months ago, so she's not quite used to the floater, but you generally, with time, patients do OK. About 50% of people by age 50 end up having floaters.

Narrator: But can the floaters be safely removed?

Lana Srur, MD: Not really. No.

Jill Wells, MD: Generally speaking, we don't treat these vitreous floaters. Vitreous surgery can be performed to remove all of the floaters and all of the gel of the eye, but there are risks to that surgery, including retinal detachment, cataract, infection ...

Lana Srur, MD: In general, floaters are typically observed and tolerated.

Narrator: So when should you be concerned about floaters? Experts warn if you should develop a sudden onset of floaters, get to the eye doctor.

Jill Wells, MD: About 15% of people who come in with a new vitreous detachment, they will also have a retinal tear.

Lana Srur, MD: The vitreous jelly can pull on the retina. And as it pulls, the brain perceives that as flashing lights. That's the signal that it sends. And so if that vitreous is pulling on the retina that could create a tear or a hole in the retina. So it's important to have that checked.

Jill Wells, MD: All right, look up and to your left.

We basically put laser marks in a circle around the tear and sort of barricade the tear, so that fluid can't get behind the tear to cause a retinal detachment. The people that are at a higher risk for developing vitreous floaters include people who are nearsighted, and people that have had cataract surgery, and people that have had cataract surgery and then have what we call a YAG laser following the cataract surgery.

Narrator: But for most people who see floaters, nothing more than a minor nuisance. For WebMD, I'm Damon Meharg.