Posterior vitreous detachment: What to know about this common eye condition as you age

Senior-age man being examined by an eye doctor, who shines a light in one of his eyes

It’s normal for our eyes to change as we get older. One of the most common issues people experience is a posterior vitreous detachment.

What is vitreous detachment?

The substance in the middle of the eye is called the vitreous. It contains fibers that attach to the retina, which is the back layer of the eye.

Early in life, the vitreous maintains a more solid, gel-like consistency. As a person ages, the vitreous becomes liquefied and less stable, which causes it to separate from the retina.

Vitreous detachment is the term used to describe this process.

What causes vitreous detachment?

Vitreous detachment is not preventable. It’s a natural occurrence and the risk increases with age. People who have this typically begin to experience it between the ages of 45 and 65.

Myopia (or near-sightedness) can increase a person’s odds of vitreous detachment.

Other risk factors include inflammation and trauma to the eye. Undergoing procedures such as cataract surgery can also increase the chances of vitreous detachment.

Does vitreous detachment have noticeable symptoms?

Floaters and flashes of light are the most common symptoms of a vitreous detachment.

Floaters may appear as spots, lines or squiggles that move around when you move your eye. They can range in color from dark gray to clear and are more noticeable when looking at a bright screen or blue sky.

Flashes are bursts of light that may look like a lightning bolt or camera flash, usually off to the side.

People may also notice marked changes in their vision, such as sudden blurriness.

An eye doctor often looks for vitreous detachment during regular eye exams in patients who are more likely to have one, or for people who report symptoms. Your doctor will perform a dilated eye examination to look for a vitreous detachment.

Is vitreous detachment serious?

A vitreous detachment is not a serious condition by itself. However, up to 10% of people with vitreous detachment may experience complications stemming from it. That’s because the process of posterior vitreous detachment can cause pulling on the retina. That kind of tugging can tear the retina or rip open a hole in it, which can lead to a retinal detachment.

A retinal detachment is very serious and often results in vision loss. In a small number of cases, vitreous detachment can also cause a macular hole or epiretinal membrane, which is a wrinkle in the retina.

There’s no way to distinguish these conditions based on symptoms alone. That’s why it’s important to immediately seek medical attention from your eye care provider if you experience new floaters, a sudden increase in existing floaters, or flashes of light in your vision.

Is there any treatment for vitreous detachment?

A vitreous detachment itself cannot be treated and the eye will not heal itself from it. However, patients do not need to make any lifestyle changes and they can continue wearing glasses or contact lenses.

Patients may need to get used to having a large floater in their vision, but floaters usually move out of the center of vision eventually and become less noticeable.

Serious complications stemming from a vitreous detachment, such as holes, tears or retinal detachment, are usually treated with laser surgery. Ophthalmologists at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center may also perform procedures to push the retina back into place and replace the vitreous fluid.

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