Question of the Week

What are floaters, and can we draw them away?

Sun, 25th Oct 2009

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Question

Paul, New Zealand asked:

What are the floaters we see in the eyeball?

And would it be possible to have a coil of thin wire in ones spectacle frames which would attract floaters to the extremities of the eye so that they would not float across the eye and be a distraction?

Answer

We posed this question to Dr. James Johnson from Vitreous Floater Solutions in Southern California...

Well, floaters are actually very common.  It is an age related  phenomenon for the most part especially as we get in to the 40s and older.  And what it is, is a clear gel in the back of the eye starts to condense and coil less and cloud over.  Hence, that what the person sees will be spots and threads and shadowy clouds or cobweb type shadows which move around in the vision.  Most of these floaters are considered benign, but it is worth getting a good eye examination to make sure that itís not part of something more serious such as a retinal tear or a retinal detachment.  The common advice that most people are given is to just learn to live with it and hope that it will go away.  Now, the traditional treatment as I said is just to learn to live with it.  There is actually a surgical intervention, a surgical procedure called the vitrectomy and it involves putting small instruments inside the eye to essentially suck out the gel in its entirety and replace it with salt water.  As you can imagine, itís invasive, it has complications, commonly cataract and sometimes even retinal detachment.  And as far as your readerís question about putting a coil of wire, it reminds me of a Steve Martin movie called The Jerk where he did put a little handle, a little wire on some glasses and in the movie, everybody got cross-eyed.  Well, that wouldnít happen, but thereís nothing you can really do to distract yourself from those floaters because they are inside the eye and they're constantly there.  I have an unusual situation where I have a practice entirely devoted to treating floaters and I use a laser.  So I use a highly focused laser on the floater material itself and vaporize it, convert it to a gas, the gas goes away and the floaters are gone.

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If the floaters are really bad it is possible to remove them by replacing the liquid in the eye ...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitrectomy

Edit: WARNING Those of a squeamish disposition should not click on the wikipedia vitrectomy link as it contains graphic images of eyeball kebabs. RD, Tue, 20th Oct 2009

Floaters are some kind of small optical disturbance in the thick transparent fluid which fills the the volume between the lens and the retina in the eye.
As far as I know, despite their name, the floaters actually tend to stay in much the same place in the eye for many years... the reason they appear to move about is that they have a fixed place within your field of view, and if they are slightly off-centre, you will naturally move your eye to 'get a better look', but unlike normal objects which stay put, the floater moves with your eye as you move your eye. Consequently you try and move your eye further to chase it, and the effect is as if the floater accelerated away.

If, instead of trying to concentrate on the floater, you fix your gaze on a spot/dot on an otherwise plain page/wall, you'll be aware of the floaters scattered around - but keep looking at the spot/dot else they'll flit away!


What causes floaters in the first place, and whether there's a particular age they multiply I don't know. I've been aware of floaters for a long while now, perhaps since I was 20-ish, but I don't think they're getting any worse.


No you can't put anything in your spectacles to get rid of the floaters - it doesn't work like that!


By the way RD, you should put a warning by that Wikipedia link; the photos on there make me twist up inside! techmind, Thu, 22nd Oct 2009

Someone get a barf-bag for Techmind quick!

Woops, too late .....CLEAN UP ON AISLE SEVEN! CLEAN UP ON AILSE SEVEN! Geezer, Fri, 23rd Oct 2009

I'm guessing those floaters are WBCs and other cells needed for the body to maintain the ocular fluid. We see them as shadows as they pass across the retina. jbilinski, Fri, 23rd Oct 2009

I think the floaters comprise a range of materials and tissues including cells, proteins and debris. chris, Fri, 23rd Oct 2009

I know what 'brown floaters' are, but that's a different matter altogether. Don_1, Sat, 24th Oct 2009

Indeed - and my definition holds for both!

Chris chris, Sat, 24th Oct 2009

LOL...LOL....

Are Floaters the same as the little flickers of light that seems to be floating shiny spots, I can see on occasion ? Not always though.. I always thought it was my blood pressure! Karen W., Mon, 26th Oct 2009

Hi Karen

possibly, but don't confuse "floaters" with the entoptic effect called Sheerer's Phenomenon, which is down to white blood cells transiting retinal capillaries.

Chris chris, Tue, 27th Oct 2009

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