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Eyeball 'floaters' are really wrinkles

EDITOR'S NOTE: This weekly column by reporter Bill Kettler answers readers' questions about topics of general medical interest with information provided by doctors from PrimeCare, Jackson County's independent practice association.

I am a 58-year-old man in very good physical condition. I have what is known as a "floater" in my left eye. Is there any treatment for this condition, or is it just one of the "joys" of growing old?

-- Bill F., Medford

Those tiny specks that seem to float across your field of vision can surface at any age and they're far more common than you might think, says Dr. Gregory Christiansen, an ophthalmologist who practices in Medford and Grants Pass.

Floaters may appear as dark spots, cobwebs, strands or specks. While some people think they are tiny pieces of dust drifting across the surface of the eye, they are actually inside the eyeball, in the gel known as the vitreous humor. That's why they move with your eyes when you're trying to follow them.

Floaters are more common in older people, because the interior of the eyeball changes over time.

"As the vitreous ages, it becomes more liquid and less firm," Christiansen says. "It condenses on itself and wrinkles."

The floaters are clumps and wrinkles in the vitreous gel. The wrinkles and clumps cast shadows when light passes through the vitreous humor on its way to the retina, the light sensitive area at the back of the eye. The floaters we see are actually the shadows of the wrinkles projected on the retina.

A new floater may cause some consternation the first time it's noticed, but mostly they are just benign signs of aging.

"Sometimes people think it's a fly on the wall," he says. "They'll close one eye and realize what they are seeing is inside the eye."

Some may go away on their own, but in many cases the brain apparently learns to "forget" them, Christiansen says. "Your brain gets used to them and sort of ignores them. It's a lot like when you hear the same sound for a long time."

Although floaters are rarely a problem in themselves, they can be a symptom of a serious eye condition which could cause permanent vision loss. Christiansen says anyone who notices new floaters should have a physician examine their eyes to exclude any ocular disease.

"They cause a lot of anxiety," he says. "Nobody wants to go blind."

The best treatment for most floaters? Christiansen says it's "the tincture of time."

E-mail questions to: bkettler@mailtribune.com or send them to: Mail Tribune, Ask Your Doctors, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501.