Are You Seeing Stars?



Are you seeing stars? If you ever have, the professionals at the Eye Care Specialists can assure you that you are definitely not alone. This is a rather common visual complaint that is usually a normal and harmless occurrence. The spots and flashes of light are a visual phenomenon called phosphine, otherwise known as seeing stars. Phosphenes are produced by pressure on the eye, which translates into various patterns by the optic nerve.

You probably first noticed them as a child, when you closed your eyes and pushed on them with your fingers. When you opened them, it may have surprised you to find yourself in a world of waves and patterns of color. Adults more commonly experience this when standing up too fast, after reclining or laying down. Some people may even see flashes and spots of light after suffering a migraine, or a severe head injury. Other physically induced phosphenes can include seeing spots when you sneeze.

But how can this be possible, since there are no light waves actually entering the eye?

Fluctuation in Blood Pressure

The brain and central nervous system tissue burns off about 20% of the energy that you consume in any given moment in time and it contributes only a fraction of body mass. So, these areas are already incredibly metabolically hungry, and when you stand up too quickly the action produces what’s known as a postural drop. The blood that was in your heart all of a sudden gets pumped quickly around your body. Before your heart is able to compensate, there is a momentary reduction in perfusion to your retina—a reduction in the amount of sugar and oxygen in the blood that causes the retina to misfire, sending abnormal signals to the brain. The brain is then fooled with these abnormal sparkly light signals, seeing light that’s not there.

If you are pregnant and suddenly experience seeing stars after standing up, it can be an indicator of pre-eclampsia. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should contact your health care provider immediately.

Head Injuries

Seeing spots is not necessarily caused by low blood pressure. Conversely, it could be because of an injury to the occipital lobe, a part of the brain that processes signals from the retina and produces images. You see, your brain is both fragile and durable. It bobs around in your skull, surrounded in a wishy-washy fluid called the cerebrospinal fluid. If you have a sudden impact, interruption, or movement to your cranium—as to suddenly smash your head against a hard surface, like a wall or pavement—the brain then launches forward, impacting the front of your skull, only to rebound and hit the back as well. This can irritate the visual cortex (located inside the occipital lobe), which is the part of the brain that decodes what your actually seeing. When this happens, sometimes it irritates the nerve cells in the retina by not having enough blood flow, making you see strange light patterns.


Some individuals can see flashes or lines of light that can last up to 10 to 20 minutes. These are caused by a spasm of blood vessels in the brain, or migraine. Migraines are thought to be caused by the dilation and constriction of arteries in the head, which can be extremely painful, and accompanied by nausea and vomiting. If these headaches are then followed by flashes of light, it is referred to as a “migraine headache.” In the absence of a headache, it is called an “ophthalmic migraine.”

Generally, people don’t associate this visual distress with migraine because migraine is commonly associated with headaches. But one can have a visual migraine with no headache at all (although 40-50% of visual migraines are associated with a mild headache shortly after the vision clears.) Most of the time, ophthalmic migraines are the most common kind of migraine and can be brought on by stress, fatigue, and changing levels of estrogen—just as with a regular migraine headache. It is far more common in adolescent or menopausal females, and on rare occasions are associated with other more serious problems.

In these busy times, we may take persistent headaches for granted. After all, we are living in an environment where stress is nothing out of the norm. But don’t be too careless, if you feel something wrong, be it a simple headache, or a short dizzy spell, consult a health professional immediately for proper medical evaluation.

Not a concern for eye health

The physicians at the Eye Care Specialists can assure you that usually seeing flashes of light or spots is normal and not a cause for concern, as it can be explained by one of the reasons above. However, if you are experiencing a sudden increase of spots or flashes, it can be a sign of a detached retina, which is a medical emergency because it can lead to permanent blindness within a matter of hours. Contact Eye Care Specialists immediately at 781-769-8880, and if you cannot reach the eye doctor, go directly to the emergency room.