Common Myths About Treating Amblyopia
Amblyopia is a condition often called “lazy eye” where one eye has reduced visual acuity (i.e. can’t see 20/20), even with the appropriate glasses. Amblyopia occurs when the brain ignores or suppresses information from one eye. This condition affects 2 to 3 out of every 100 children; making it one of the most common causes of reduced vision in children. Below I will discuss 3 common myths about treating amblyopia.
Before we get into the common misconceptions about treatment for amblyopia, let’s first discuss how amblyopia develops. The two most common types of amblyopia are Refractive Ambylopia and Strabismic Amblyopia.
Refractive Amblyopia is the most common type of Amblyopia. This occurs when there is a large difference in refractive error (a.k.a. the prescription needed to focus an image on the retina) between the two eyes. Refractive Amblyopia develops because the images in each eye are different or when one eye must work harder than the other to see. These differences between the picture created by the two eyes makes it difficult to merge the two images together into one.
If the brain is faced with one blurry picture and one, clear picture it will give preference to the clear picture and ignore information from the blurry one. Over time this suppression of information leads to reduced acuity. Usually the amblyopic eye will also have greater difficulty with other visual skills such as focusing, tracking, eye-hand coordination and higher levels of visual processing because of this. In cases of Refractive Amblyopia, wearing the appropriate prescription is an important aspect of treatment.
The second most common cause of amblyopia is strabismus. Strabismus is a misalignment of the eyes, usually esotropia (eye turn in) or exotropia (eye turn out). When the eyes have trouble coordinating with each other and are not pointing in the same place at the same time, the brain gets confused and cannot put the images together. Rather than seeing double, the brain will ignore information from one of the eyes. Usually it ignores information from the eye that is turned most often; eliminating the double vision.
Now, let’s review the most common misconceptions about amblyopia treatments…
Myth #1= The most effective method of treating amblyopia is patching.
Many eye doctors use patching as their primary method of treating amblyopia. If you are the parent of an amblyopic child, you need to know that there are better ways to treat amblyopia then long hours of patching. In fact, a recent study from the National Eye Institute (https://nei.nih.gov/news/pressreleases/051203) shows that two hours of patching is as effective as all day patching. A patch can be one effective tool when used properly; however, it is not the only tool. In my practice, patching is often done with other prescribed activities to equalize visual skills between the two eyes. A patch is usually worn while doing prescribed activities for lesser periods of time.
A newer approach to treating Refractive Amblyopia doesn’t involve a patch at all. One of the problems that occurs in Refractive Amblyopia is that because the prescription is different between the two eyes, the image sizes are also different. Even with the correct prescription, the brain has a hard time putting two different sized images together, and the eyes can still struggle to work together. The Shaw Lens is designed to reduce the image size differences that occur when one eye needs a stronger prescription than the other. We are proud to be one of the first clinics in the area to provide this new technology to our patients. Although more research needs to be done, our clinic is seeing improved visual acuity after one month of wearing the Shaw lenses. More information about the Shaw lens can be found on their website: http://shawlens.com/aniseikonia/amblyopia/ .
Myth #2= Amblyopia can’t be treated after a certain age.
In the past, many in the medical community believed that amblyopia could not be treated after age eight. These assumptions were based on the false belief that the brain did not retain neuroplasticity (or the ability to make new connections) after this “critical” period of development. While early interventions and treatments are always the best, new studies by the National Institute of Health (https://nei.nih.gov/news/pressreleases/041105 ) recommend that age should not be a determining factor when deciding to treat amblyopia. Future studies are looking at the effectiveness of treating adults with amblyopia. Many offices who specialize in vision therapy, including ours, successfully treat amblyopia well into adulthood. These adult patients are making improvements in both visual acuity and depth perception. It is never too late to treat a “lazy eye”.
Myth # 3= Once 20/20 vision is achieved, the amblyopic eye is “cured”.
This is a common mistake even well trained eye doctors will make. Remember that amblyopia is not exactly an “eye” problem, it is a brain problem caused when images from the two eyes cannot be merged effectively and efficiently. Even if the eye with amblyopia can see 20/20, it doesn’t mean that the amblyopic eye transmits or processes visual information as efficiently as the non-amblyopic eye, or that the brain can sync the information together. The brain could still be ignoring/suppressing information from the amblyopic eye when both eyes are open.
Depth perception at distance and near should be the goal of any amblyopia treatment plan. Quality depth perception occurs when the two eyes are working well together and the brain is then able to combine the information into one 3-D image. Patching alone is often not enough to teach the eyes how to work together. Vision therapy is often required to achieve quality depth perception and to ensure that the eyes will want to stay working together long term.
Please contact our office with any questions you may have at firstname.lastname@example.org . Or to schedule an evaluation call us at 608-849-4040.
Dr. Valerie Frazer, FCOVD