Elderly man has his eyes examined by a doctor

At a glance: Vitreous Detachment

  • Symptoms:

    Floaters (small dark spots or squiggly lines that float across your vision), flashes of light in your side (peripheral) vision

  • Diagnosis:

    Dilated eye exam

  • Treatment:

    None (for most cases), surgery

What is vitreous detachment?

The vitreous is the gel-like fluid that fills your eye. It’s full of tiny fibers that attach to your retina (the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye).

As you get older, the fibers of your vitreous pull away from the retina. This is called vitreous detachment. It usually happens after age 50. You may not notice when your vitreous detaches — or you may notice symptoms that affect your vision.

If you notice symptoms of vitreous detachment, talk to your eye doctor.

What are the symptoms of vitreous detachment?

The most common symptom of vitreous detachment is a sudden increase in floaters (small dark spots or squiggly lines that float across your vision). When your vitreous detaches, strands of the vitreous often cast new shadows on your retina — and those shadows appear as floaters.

You may also notice flashes of light in your side (peripheral) vision.

Sometimes, vitreous detachment causes more serious eye problems that need treatment right away. The only way to tell if vitreous detachment has caused a serious eye problem is to get a dilated eye exam. So if you notice symptoms of vitreous detachment, it’s important to go to your eye doctor right away.

If your vitreous detachment doesn’t cause a serious eye problem, you’ll probably stop noticing symptoms as much after a few months.

What other problems can vitreous detachment cause?

Vitreous detachment can sometimes lead to more serious eye conditions:

  • Retinal tear. Sometimes, the vitreous fibers tear a hole in the retina when they pull away. If you don’t get treatment quickly, this can lead to retinal detachment.
  • Retinal detachment. Sometimes vitreous detachment pulls the entire retina away from its normal position at the back of the eye. This can be a medical emergency. Learn more about retinal detachment.
  • Macular hole. Sometimes vitreous detachment tears a hole in the macula (the part of the retina that controls your central vision). This can happen before or after the vitreous detaches enough to cause floaters or flashes of light. Learn more about macular hole.
  • Macular pucker. Sometimes vitreous detachment causes a thin layer of scar tissue to grow over the macula. This usually happens slowly in the months or years after vitreous detachment. Learn more about macular pucker.

These conditions can cause vision loss — but treatment may help preserve your vision. Tell your eye doctor right away if you notice symptoms of vitreous detachment so they can check for these more serious problems.

Am I at risk for vitreous detachment?

If you’re age 50 or older, you’re at risk for vitreous detachment — and your risk increases as you age. Vitreous detachment is very common in people over age 80. You’re also at higher risk if you’re nearsighted.

If you have vitreous detachment in 1 eye, you’re at higher risk of getting it in the other eye.

How will my eye doctor check for vitreous detachment?

Eye doctors can check for vitreous detachment as part of a dilated eye exam. Your doctor will give you some eye drops to dilate (widen) your pupil and then check your eyes for vitreous detachment and other eye problems.

This exam is usually painless. The doctor may press on your eyelids to check for retinal tears, which may be uncomfortable for some people.

What’s the treatment for vitreous detachment?

If your vitreous detachment doesn’t cause a more serious eye condition, you probably won’t need any treatment. If your vitreous detachment causes a serious condition — like a retinal tear — you may need treatment for that condition.

If your floaters still bother you after a few months and make it hard to see clearly, your eye doctor might suggest a surgery called a vitrectomy to remove them. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of this surgery. 

Last updated: September 8, 2020