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A Grape in Your Eye?

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Q: I have been noticing strings and cobwebs in my vision lately. Sometimes I get a quick flash of light too. Is this normal for my 64 years of age?

A: Maybe yes and maybe no. As we age, it is true that the firm jelly inside our eye becomes more watery. Think of firm jello when you are 12 and warm mushy jello when you are 50. As this natural change occurs, the tiny fibrils that give the jelly, called “vitreous” can also clump together in this water soup.

But much like a grape has a skin, our jelly has a membrane around it. This jelly grape acts as a shock absorber for our eye...softening the trauma of a fist, or a ball, or even our own hand rubbing our eye/s! This membrane also softens and crumples up inside our eye over time. That can also cause visual floaters that assume all kinds of shapes and appearance. What you see is usually the shadow of these fibrils in whatever shape or pattern they form...cobwebs, strings, clumps, etc. Sometimes larger pieces of the membrane cause floaters more like wax paper or something cloudy.

When the vitreous membrane tugs on the retinal nerve layer, it can cause flashes of light. More commonly off to the side, not the center, these warn of traction and pulling on that delicate nerve layer.

As we examine your eyes with our biomicroscope in the office, we can see the actual fibrils and assorted floaters inside your eye/s. Because they are attached, these usually tend to stay in the same “neighborhood” of your vision...off to the side, above the center, wherever. Good news: these vitreous floaters are harmless. However...they are still attached to your very thin, very delicate retina nerve layer lining the back of your eye. Because the retina is about like a layer of cellophane, it has a risk of being tugged and pulled so much by your vitreous that is can be detached from the back of the eye. Hence the very dangerous and very unpredictable retinal detachment.

The bottom line: Call your eye doctor. We may use dilation eye drops to enlarge your pupils, but we need to see if yours are the harmless type of floaters, or the beginnings of a sight threatening retinal detachment. Time is of the essence for effective treatment to preserve your sight.