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What Is Photopsia?

By Jay Leone
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Photopsia is a condition in which people see what appear to be flashes of light. Often times, a migraine will accompany this eye condition. Many people who suffer from frequent migraines use these flashes as indicators for an oncoming migraine. Several things may cause a person to see random flashing lights but the most common cause is shrinking vitreous in the eye. People over the age of 65 are more likely than younger people to experience photopsia.

The vitreous is the transparent substance that comprises the center of eyes. It is made mostly of water, accounts for roughly 75 percent of the volume of the eye, and gives the eye its shape and form. Shrinking of the vitreous in the eye most commonly leads to photopsia. This shrinking puts strain on attachment nodes, irritating the retina and causing it to send out electrical impulses that the brain interprets as flashes of light.

Other events aside from vitreous shrinkage can lead to this condition. Blunt force trauma to a person's head can easily cause the retina to pull away momentarily from the eyeball. When the retina pulls away from its position in the eye, a person may see momentary flashes of light. Posterior vitreous detachment and infarctions in the brain's occipital lobe may also lead to experiencing photopsia.

Photopsia is quite often a precursor to a migraine. Migraines can be caused when blood vessels in the brain spasm or when the retina detaches from connecting nerves. The flashes of light that accompany certain migraines may resemble sparks, lines of light, zig zags, or geometric patterns dancing through the air. Flashing lights can last for a brief moment or for quite a while throughout the duration of the migraine.

Perceiving frequent and sudden flashing lights without warning is an occurrence that should not be taken lightly. A person who regularly experiences flashing lights should consult his or her eye doctor as soon as possible. While experiencing mild light flashes is generally no cause for concern, in rare cases, this condition can lead to experiencing some level of vision loss.

In general, the vitreus of the eye shrinks as a person ages, becomes thinner in consistency, and begins pulling away from the retina. Roughly two-thirds of the population over 65 years old experience some level of vitreous shrinkage. While experiencing flashing lights may not be an uncommon occurrence for these people, a considerable increase in photopsia experiences may indicate that the retina is torn.

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Discussion Comments
By JackWhack — On Oct 07, 2012

I always take photopsia very seriously. My grandmother saw flashing lights when she had a detached retina, and her doctor said that if she had not come in for a visit, she would have gone blind quickly.

By OeKc05 — On Oct 06, 2012

I guess that old cartoon image of someone seeing stars after a blow to the head holds some truth! Little dancing light flashes can resemble stars.

My friend saw flashing lights after she hit her head hard on the floor. She had been roller skating, and she fell and lost consciousness for a minute or so.

When she came to, she said that she saw hot pink dots everywhere.

By seag47 — On Oct 06, 2012

@Perdido – Did you know that you could have a migraine without any pain? They're called “silent migraines,” and I've had several in my lifetime.

The only way that I know I'm having one is by the flashing lights that I see. They are so intense that I actually lose the ability to read for awhile. A big portion of my visual field is missing, and it has been replaced by dark purple spots.

It's weird, but these episodes of photopsia always last twenty-five minutes. After twenty minutes, the spots start to fade, and my vision is gradually restored.

By Perdido — On Oct 05, 2012

I didn't know there was actually a name for this. I experience flashes of light from time to time, and it's something more than just floaters.

My flashes are colored. Just the other day, I saw what appeared to be neon green bugs flying all around in front of me. At other times, the flashes are more like squares, and they are bright purple.

I have never had a painful headache, so it must be caused by something other than a migraine. Since I haven't had any head injuries lately, what could it be?

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