Seeing Black Lines and Squiggles
Friday night, a week ago, as I was working on my computer, I began to notice a black line—something a little cobwebby at the bottom of my left eye. I thought it was likely simple eyestrain and closed my eyes for a moment, certain that it would be gone when I reopened them.
Nope, still there.
This time, there were two black lines and a squiggle of some kind between them.
I'm no stranger to eye floaters. I have numerous floaters in my eyes. I lived in Minneapolis in the very early '70s for a short time, and while sledding in the snow with my children, my sled went airborne. When I came down, I hit the ground very hard and was left with a number of floaters in my eyes—at least that's what I was told by the ophthalmologist I saw at the time. They've been there since I was 26.
Whatever this was now, it was behaving like a floater. When I tried to actually look at it, it moved away or was gone.
I included this rough sketch because I wrote an article after I began having ocular migraines and also attached a sketch. Many who have seen it said it was the first time they have seen the exact same thing they see and realized they might be having ocular migraines. I am hoping this very crude drawing will make readers realize that a lot of us have "junk" floating around in our eyes, especially as we age. They're likely harmless, but if you're ever concerned about them, contact your doctor right away.
Could It Be Retinal Detachment?
I have a friend who is going through a retinal detachment, and she said it began with a black spot in her eye. I just wasn't sure exactly what this was, so I called my ophthalmologist's office but only got the answering machine, which told me to call back in 15 minutes if I didn't receive a callback.
I waited 20 minutes, then called the nurse on call at Ochsner. She told me to go to the ER immediately when I described what I was seeing and feeling. She said it was likely nothing, but with anything that concerns the eyes, it's better to err on the side of caution.
I woke my husband, and he dressed lightning fast. Twenty minutes later, we were checking in at Ochsner's ER. They put me in a room fairly quickly. A young man came in, introduced himself, and told us he would be a doctor in three months. Good enough for me. He examined my eye before he was joined by another doctor, and together, they took an ultrasound of both of my eyes.
They told me the retina looked fine except for a small puffed-up part on one edge. (This was later ruled out as not being noteworthy.)
Nothing Was Abnormal, but I Needed a Complete Eye Exam to Be Sure
I asked if it was safe for me to go home, and they suggested I try again to get in touch with the on-call physician at my ophthalmologist's office. They both said it would be a good idea to have a complete eye exam the following week. I called the office, and he was there this time. He said he could see me on Monday morning and proceeded to ask me about my symptoms. He asked me if I was seeing any bright lights, and I answered no. He also asked the one question everyone kept asking me—about my peripheral vision.
Decreased Peripheral Vision Might Indicate Retinal Detachment, but My Peripheral Vision Was Fine
This is something to remember if you ever fear your retina is detaching. One of the things that happen is that your peripheral vision decreases. In other words, your visual field narrows, and you are not able to see much on either side while looking straight ahead.
Several of the people I dealt with—aides, nurses, and doctors—told me to hold a hand on the side of my head at arm's length, raise my fingers, and see if I could see them while looking straight ahead. My peripheral vision was okay. We went home. My husband stumbled to bed. I read awhile but grew aggravated with the black thing at the bottom of my vision, so I turned the lamp off and was asleep within seconds.
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Monday Morning Appointment: Good News and a Huge Sigh of Relief
On Monday morning at the ophthalmologist's office, I was first taken to get a scan of the back of my eyes. Just in case you ever have to get one, I'll describe the process so that you'll know what to expect.
What to Expect With a Retinal Scan
You will put your eye up close to a hole in the scanner. You will see a blue light inside. The machine will start to whir, and the colors you'll see as you're looking through the hole will change. The tech who performs the scan will warn you that a bright light is coming. It is extremely bright but not painful. This goes on with both eyes until they get a satisfactory picture of each. The bright light, according to the tech, bothers some people a lot. I didn't find it worrisome since I was forewarned each time that it was coming.
The cost for the scan was $35. I'm sure it varies from practice to practice. They told me I could request one from my regular ophthalmologist at any routine visit. I will very likely ask for one at each yearly checkup. It's a small price for peace of mind.
Going Over the Results of the Retinal Scan
After the scan, I was taken fairly quickly into the doctor's office. The pictures from the scan were attached to a whiteboard on his wall. He explained what was happening with my eyes. As we age—I am 72—the vitreous (clear gel that fills the eyeballs) tends to dry out and detach from the eye completely. As this happens, clumps of the material that makes up the vitreous—mostly collagen—break off and form what you see as floaters.
He said that as the vitreous detaches, one will experience an increased number of floaters and, sometimes, larger ones. He actually showed me the floater that was bothering me in the picture from the scan. It appeared as a small dark spot.
My Eye Floaters Are Getting Smaller
It is much smaller when it floats into my vision now, only a week later, and it is not as dark. He said that they generally get smaller with time as the material breaks apart and forms more floaters. He said the entire process is harmless and requires no treatment.
Prognosis: What to Look For
The doctor did tell me that the detachment of the vitreous can sometimes foretell a retinal detachment, although it is very rare. Pieces of the vitreous that are detaching may pull on the fibers of the retina and cause it to detach. For that reason, he gave me a test to do every day for six weeks until the danger of a retinal detachment was gone.
Peripheral Vision Test
Remember how important it is to check your peripheral vision if you ever experience anything that makes you question if your retina is detaching. He told me to find an object in the room, look straight at it, and notice how far out my vision goes on both sides. I am to do this every day, using the same object, until the danger of a detachment is gone, or for six weeks. If my vision begins to narrow, I am to call the office right away. I think I'm likely going to be fine, but I have done and will continue to do the test faithfully.
Eye Floaters in General and How to Live with Them
Floaters are nothing but tiny bits of protein floating about in the gel of your eye. They cast shadows on your retina as they float, creating small dots and squiggles in your vision. They come in various shapes and sizes. Some strands are thread-like, and you can likely see through them. Some are black or gray dots. Others are circles or appear cobwebby. When you try to look at them, they go away.
I have never been bothered by any of the numerous floaters in my eyes except this largest and most recent one. Sometimes when I'm reading or working on the computer if I consciously "watch" for them, I see them floating from side to side, but they don't bother me and don't obstruct my vision. I think the mind simply works around them, and it's like they are not there, at least for me. They are completely harmless.
I have learned since my experience that when the retina detaches, it is often accompanied by flashes of light and a narrowing of the peripheral vision. I was always under the impression that it was extremely painful to experience a retinal detachment for some reason, but that is not the case, according to what I've read and been told. There is often no pain involved at all.
I hope this article is helpful and helps allay any concerns you might have if you have symptoms similar to mine. I still would likely go to get things checked out, even knowing what I know, but I would be pretty sure it was something normal and harmless. Our eyes are so precious; we must never take chances with them.
My primary care physician told me once, "The more you know, the less you worry." I think it's true. That's why I write about any health challenge I have—to make the path a bit easier for others. I'm not a doctor. This entire article is written only to describe my own experience and perhaps spread some knowledge. With anything involving the eyes, it's always best to get checked by a professional. Take care of your eyes; they are our windows to the world around us.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Sue Pratt