If you’ve ever seen a child with an eye patch over one eye, chances are they have a visual development condition called amblyopia, or lazy eye. There’s a pervasive and long-held misconception in the general public, and even among some medical professionals, that anyone older than eight can’t be effectively treated for a lazy eye. Thankfully, recent research is proving that’s not the case. People of all ages can be treated for lazy eye—and one of the treatment methods might surprise you. In this article, we’ll be discussing what lazy eye is, what causes it, and how you can treat it.
What exactly is lazy eye?
Amblyopia, or lazy eye, is a visual development disorder in which the vision through one eye fails to develop properly in early childhood. The issue is not in the eye itself. Rather, it’s a developmental problem in the nerve connecting the eye to the brain.
This condition typically manifests between birth and age seven while vision is developing. It affects around three percent of children in the United States, making it the most common cause of partial or total blindness in one eye in children.
Lazy eye is generally diagnosed in children. Symptoms can include:
- One eye that wanders inward or outward (or crossed eyes)
- Poor depth perception
- Repeated closure of one eye or squinting
- Tilting of the head
- Trouble focusing
- Visual fatigue
What causes lazy eye?
From an anatomical perspective, lazy eye occurs due to changes in nerve pathways between a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye (retina) and the brain. When a person has a lazy eye, the weaker eye receives fewer visual signals and the brain focuses on one eye more than the other, essentially ignoring the “lazy” eye. If that eye isn’t stimulated properly, the nerve cells responsible for vision don’t mature normally.
But what are the root causes of this disruption? Certain issues can cause the brain to suppress, or turn off, the information in one eye. Common causes include:
- Muscle imbalance: This is the most common cause of lazy eye. An imbalance in muscles that position the eyes can cause the eyes to cross in or turn out, preventing them from working together. This is known as strabismic amblyopia.
- Differences in vision between the eyes: Significant differences in vision between the two eyes can result in lazy eye. This is known as refractive amblyopia.
- Deprivation: A problem in one eye, such as a cataract, can prevent clear vision in that eye. A lazy eye in infancy caused by deprivation requires urgent treatment to prevent permanent vision loss. This is known as deprivation amblyopia.
Certain risk factors can also increase the chances of developing a lazy eye including premature birth, small size at birth, a family history of lazy eye, and developmental disabilities.
Can you fix a lazy eye?
For years, experts believed that if lazy eye wasn’t treated before age eight, improvement of the condition wasn’t possible. We now know that this isn’t accurate. Lazy eye in kids and lazy eye in adults can improve and sometimes be completely corrected.
Recent research shows that regardless of a person’s age, the visual system, which consists of the eyes, brain, and visual pathways, can be retrained due to the brain’s plasticity (the brain’s ability to change). The circuitry in the brain that is causing the dysfunction can essentially be “rewired,” leading to resolution of the condition.
It’s important to note, however, that the sooner the condition is treated the better the chances of improvement are, as the brain’s ability to change lessens with age.
How to ﬁx a lazy eye
Treatment of lazy eye centers around getting the two eyes to work as a team and see visual stimuli accurately. Every case of lazy eye is different so the chosen treatment method will depend on an individual’s unique case, however, here are the various treatment options that are available.
1. Glasses or contact lenses
As explained above, lazy eye is sometimes caused by differing vision between the eyes. For example, one eye may be farsighted or nearsighted while the other eye is normal. In this case, prescription glasses or contact lenses can be used to correct the vision.
2. Eye patching
A common treatment method involves covering the stronger eye with an eye patch. This forces the brain to use the weaker eye, which helps to improve vision in that eye. The eye patch is typically worn for two to six hours daily.
3. Eye drops
Prescription eye drops can be used to blur the vision of the stronger eye, forcing the lazy eye to work harder.
4. Video games
Are video games good for you? When it comes to lazy eye treatment, they definitely can be! Children and adults can benefit from using computer programs, video games, or apps designed to stimulate neural changes that lead to improvements in visual acuity and contrast sensitivity.
A two-week clinical study involving 28 children with lazy eye found that children who played an iPad game designed to improve lazy eye improved visual acuity by 1.5 lines on a standard eye chart. Children who wore an eye patch improved by 0.7 lines. Not only was the iPad game more effective, but it also required less time to see greater results. It was also found that the improvements in vision were retained for at least one year after treatment.
In another study, 20 subjects ages 15 to 61 with lazy eye played either a video game involving shooting at targets or one involving constructing something. Participants played their assigned game for a total of 40 hours over the course of a month, two hours at a time. Results showed that both groups had a 30 percent increase in visual acuity, or an average improvement of 1.5 lines on a standard eye chart. By comparison, it can take 120 hours of eye patch therapy to see a one-line improvement.
Computer games, video games, and apps designed to improve lazy eye are available for people of different ages, from young children to adults. If video games aren’t your thing, there are other hands-on exercises you can try, such as putting together jigsaw puzzles and coloring.
Protect your eyes from blue light
While the studies about using video games to treat lazy eye are very exciting, it’s important to protect your eyes from the harmful effects of blue light when playing these games. Devices like iPads and computers expose your eyes to high levels of blue light which can cause eye strain, headaches, and disruptions in your body’s sleep cycle. To counter these harmful effects and promote vision health, wear blue light blocking glasses when playing the games. These glasses are designed to filter out the blue-violet rays that are emitted from digital screens, making it possible to partake in your lazy eye treatment without causing further damage to your eyes.
The bottom line
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t improve or correct a lazy eye in older children or adults. There are a number of treatment options available, one of which sounds particularly fun, if we do say so ourselves! From glasses to eye patches to video games, these treatments have the potential to correct your condition and allow you to view the world with clearer vision.