According to the National Eye Institute, amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” is the “most common cause of visual impairment in childhood,” affecting approximately 2–3 of every 100 children. Vision results from the brain and the eye working together, and amblyopia can result when that doesn’t happen.
Amblyopia most commonly occurs when one eye is more nearsighted, farsighted, or astigmatic than the other. However, it can also be caused by a cataract or an imbalance in the positioning of the eyes. Although the amblyopic eye typically looks normal, it is not being used normally. The brain begins to favor the stronger eye, and some children may experience “drifting” or “wandering” of the weaker eye.
If left untreated, amblyopia can lead to monocular (one eye) visual impairment. Children who are diagnosed before age 6 have the best chance of success with treatment — the younger, the better. However, even children ages 7 and older can improve significantly.
Treatment involves forcing the brain to use the weaker eye. This can be done through spectacle therapy in which the child wears special eyeglasses, but it more typically involves additional modes, which include:
- Medicated eyedrops. A drop of atropine may be placed in the stronger eye periodically (perhaps as often as once a day) to blur the vision so that the brain will use the weaker eye. Children using atropine will be more sensitive to light so they may consider wearing sunglasses in lit areas.
- Eye patch. An opaque, adhesive patch may be worn over the stronger eye for a number of hours each day. This method forces the brain to use the weaker eye.
- Combination therapy. Eyeglasses may be worn, and a combination of drops and patches may be used.
Screening for eye problems
The success of treatment is much greater for children who are diagnosed at a young age, when the brain’s vision structures are still developing. See if a participating eye doctor in your area offers the InfantSEE program, a free eye test given to children between the ages of 6–12 months of age. Preschool vision screening is also important.