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Posterior vitreous detachment

Vitreous detachment causing eye floaters

When the word “detachment” is used to describe something related to your eye, it’s not unusual to feel a sense of panic. So, when one hears that they may be experiencing posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), they commonly ask if medical treatment is required and how long it takes a posterior vitreous detachment to heal. 

Rest easy; vitreous detachment is not as serious as it may sound.

Unlike a retinal detachment, vitreous detachment is not an injury to the eye and usually resolves without treatment. Rather, vitreous detachment is part of the eyes’ natural aging process — it typically is not dangerous and has no serious effects on vision.

What vitreous detachment looks like

One could say that vitreous detachment looks like eye floaters and flashes, because it’s often responsible for the floaters and flashes that you begin to notice once you reach a certain age.

Eye floaters

The vitreous is a clear substance within the eye that gives it its shape — like water in a water balloon. Though it is mostly water, the vitreous also contains tiny fibers of a protein called collagen, which give it a jelly-like consistency. Early in life, the collagen fibers in the vitreous are arranged in a tidy, organized fashion, making them essentially invisible. 

As we age, the gel-like vitreous begins to liquify. This causes collagen fibers in the vitreous to clump together in an unordered fashion and become opaque. The opaque clumps cast shadows on the retina when light enters the eye, and our brain interprets these shadows as floaters. 

While research has yet to give a definite reason behind why the vitreous liquifies, it’s confirmed that it results in the appearance of floaters.

Eye flashes

The vitreous has more collagen fibers where it attaches directly to the retina, making this part of the vitreous “thicker” than the central portion.

When the center of the vitreous liquifies with age, the thicker portion in the periphery begins to pull away from its attachment to the retina, resulting in a posterior vitreous detachment.

As the vitreous tugs on the retina, it triggers flashes or streaks of light in your peripheral vision. These flashes are usually noticed during the first few weeks of a PVD.

Also, since the outer part of the vitreous has more collagen fibers, floaters become even more apparent after a PVD. If you notice floaters or flashes in your vision, it’s important to see an eye doctor who can make sure detachment of your vitreous is not causing a hole, tear or detachment of the retina.

SEE RELATED: Eye floaters and flashes FAQ

Posterior vitreous detachment symptoms

Symptoms of posterior vitreous detachment include eye floaters that appear as specs, strings or cobwebs that drift across your field of vision. Since the floaters are caused by clumps of collagen that are suspended in a still somewhat gel-like fluid inside your eye, trying to focus on one specific floater is impossible, as they dart when your focus shifts.

Another symptom of PVD, as mentioned before, is flashes or streaks of light in the side of your vision. The frequency of flashes may be low and triggered by certain actions like moving your eyes quickly. 

While these symptoms are common with PVD and are no cause for alarm, if you notice the number of floaters or the frequency of flashes increasing, you should see an eye doctor promptly. Increased light flashes means more pulling on the retina, and can result in a retinal detachment or retinal tear

SEE RELATED: Types of retinal detachment

Does posterior vitreous detachment affect vision?

According to the American Society of Retina Specialists, if PVD occurs gently, gradually and uniformly, symptoms like floaters and flashes are typically mild. However, it is possible for the vitreous to pull too hard on the retina and create a retinal hole or retinal detachment.

Retinal detachment occurs when a piece of the retina is lifted or pulled from its attachment to the back of the eye. It’s possible for this to take place after a PVD, which is why a visit to the eye doctor is recommended when frequent streaks of light are observed in vision.

Columbia University’s Department of Ophthalmology compares it to a stamp being peeled off on an envelope. There are times when the stamp is removed cleanly, and other times when pieces of the envelope are pulled off with the stamp.

PVD is a common occurrence that does not threaten your sight. But a retinal detachment is a medical emergency that can jeopardize your vision if treatment isn’t administered quickly. 

It’s important when you start seeing symptoms of PVD, to make an appointment with your eye doctor as soon as possible. They can take a look at the vitreous, as well as the retina, to determine whether the risk of retinal damage is present. 

READ MORE: Detached retina symptoms and warning signs

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Gary Heiting, OD

Gary Heiting, OD, is a former senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 30 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear ... Read more