What Are Floaters?

Posted on August 26, 2013 · Posted in Eye Health

A wise young man with a football-shaped head once offered this monologue:

Oh, squiggly line in my eye fluid, I see you there, lurking on the periphery of my vision.
But when I try to look at you, you scurry away.
Are you shy, squiggly line?
Why only when I ignore you do you return to the center of my eye?
Oh, squiggly line, it’s all right.
You are forgiven.

From Family Guy to FirstView, floating spots within the eye are quick to generate a wide array of emotions.  Fear, annoyance, and bewilderment seem to be some of the most common expressed by our patients.  But what really are these spots?  And should you be concerned?

First, let’s define the area we’re going to discuss so we’re on the same page.  See the bluish-white object on the illustration to the right labelled “Lens”?  That big orange space between the lens and retina is what we want to talk about.

This space is full of a substance called the vitreous humor, or vitreous for short.  The vitreous is transparent and colorless and serves to stabilize many of the internal ocular structures.

The vitreous is made up of mainly water and collagen held together by electrical charges.  Over time, these charges weaken and result in a normal liquification of the vitreous (a process called syneresis).  As more and more of the vitreous changes to fluid, solid pieces of the collagen framework have a tendency to break off and float within the fluid.

Now, if only a clever, descriptive name could be created for these pieces :)  Incidentally, the video below is the best demonstration of floaters in their natural state I’ve ever encountered.  As you watch, you’ll see dots and strands floating within the vitreous with the optic nerve, retina, and retinal blood vessels serving as the backdrop.

Should you be worried if you notice floaters?  If you notice a lot of them all at once, you notice a lot more than you had the day before, and/or you notice flashes of light that aren’t really there, call your eye doctor…that’s what they’re there for. They’ll be able to evaluate the health of the inside of the eye and make sure that your floaters are normal rather than a sign of more significant issue.