You've probably seen transparent squiggles swimming across your field of vision before, which are actually tiny pieces of protein inside your eyeball called floaters. If you're bothered by them, then good news - scientists have tested a new way of safely removing these distracting blurs using lasers.
This isn't just about getting rid of a small annoyance: for some, these floaters can get larger and more problematic with age, even though they're generally harmless.
In this study, ophthalmologists from Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston tested the impact of a laser treatment called YAG (Yttrium-Aluminium Garnet) laser vitreolysis against a placebo treatment given to a control group.
While this type of treatment has been tested before, it's the first time it's been put up against placebos, and that's important in studies where self-reporting participants might be imagining their improvements.
Based on the findings of these tests, the improvement appears to be real: in the treated group, 54 percent of participants reported an improvement in vision, compared with 9 percent in the placebo control group.
That's based on tests on a total of 52 volunteers, assessed over a six-month period.
"The YAG laser group reported greater improvement in symptoms than the sham group," the researchers report. "No clinically relevant adverse events were identified."
The scientific term for these floaters is muscae volitantes, or "flying flies" in Latin, and they occur when tiny bits of protein, tissue, or red blood cells cast shadows on the retina tissue at the back of your eye. The closer they are to the retina, the more clearly they appear.
As they're suspended in the gel that fills the eyeball – called the vitreous humour – they appear to float around, and disappear when we try and stare at them.
As we get older, the vitreous humour can start to degrade and become liquified, causing floaters to bind together to create bigger clumps and knots, to such an extent that it can start to seriously affect vision.
What YAG laser vitreolysis does is fragment floaters into even smaller chunks, with the help of a special contact lens developed for this purpose. Surgeons literally take aim at the floaters with a target that's 6 microns (or six thousandths of a millimetre) wide.
The process is non-invasive and pain-free, and currently available to patients. At the moment though, we don't know too much about just how effective or risky it is.
The researchers themselves acknowledge the relatively small sample size, the relatively short follow-up period, and the lack of any other treatment option to compare YAG laser vitreolysis against. Further studies are required, they say.
However, we now have some evidence that patients using the treatment aren't experiencing a placebo effect but seeing real improvements in their eyesight.
You might just want to hang on for another study before you book your laser appointment, though.
The research has been published in JAMA Ophthalmology.