Bifocal and Multifocal Contact Lenses
Bifocal contact lenses are designed to provide good vision to people who have a condition called presbyopia.
The main sign that you're developing presbyopia is that you need to hold menus, newspapers and other reading material farther from your eyes in order to see it clearly.
Bifocal and multifocal contact lenses come in both soft materials and rigid gas permeable (GP) materials. They are also available as hybrid contact lenses. Some can be worn on a disposable basis. That means you have the convenience of throwing the lenses out at specified intervals (even daily, in some cases) and replacing them with fresh, new lenses.
Several lens manufacturers offer multifocal contact lenses made of silicone hydrogel material. These lenses allow significantly more oxygen to reach the cornea than conventional soft lenses for greater wearing comfort, and are available for both daily wear and extended wear.
Brands of multifocal silicone hydrogel contacts include Acuvue Oasys for Presbyopia (Vistakon), Air Optix Aqua Multifocal (Ciba Vision), Biofinity Multifocal (CooperVision) and PureVision Multi-Focal (Bausch + Lomb). Duette hybrid contact lenses use a silicone hydrogel skirt.
Bifocal Contacts, Multifocal Contacts What's the Difference?
Bifocal contacts lenses have two prescriptions in the same lens. Multifocal contact lenses have a range of powers (similar to progressive spectacle lenses) in each lens.
"Multifocal contacts" also is used as a catch-all term for all contact lenses with more than one power, including bifocal contacts.
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How Multifocal Contact Lenses Work
Bifocal and multifocal contact lenses work in several different ways, depending on the design of the lens. The designs fall into two basic groups:
- "Alternating vision" (translating) lenses are so named because your pupil alternates between the two powers, as your gaze shifts upward or downward.
- "Simultaneous vision" lenses require your eye to be looking through both distance and near powers at the same time. Although this might sound unworkable, your visual system learns to select the correct power choice depending on how close or far you're trying to see.
Simultaneous vision lenses come in two types: concentric ring designs and aspheric designs.
Left: In this example of a translating design the near power is on the bottom. The bottom edge is flattened to keep the lens from rotating on your eye when you blink. Middle: In this concentric design the distance prescription is in the center and is surrounded by rings of near and far power, but near-center versions also are available. Right: In this aspheric design the near and distance prescriptions are both in front of the pupil.
Alternating Bifocal Contact Lenses
Alternating or translating bifocals work much like bifocal eyeglasses. They have two power segments, with an obvious line of separation between the distance correction on top and the near correction below. Your eye looks through either one or the other, depending on whether you're looking far or near.
With bifocal eyeglasses, this mechanism works because the lenses stay in place even as your eye moves. That can happen with contact lenses, too.
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Since most alternating bifocals are GP lenses, they are smaller in diameter than soft lenses, and they ride on your eye above your lower eyelid. Therefore, when your gaze shifts downward, the lens stays in place, allowing you to see through the lower, near-correction part of the lens (see graphic at right).
Concentric Ring Designs
This type of bifocal contact lens features a prescription in the center and one or more rings of power surrounding it. If there are multiple rings, they alternate between the near and distance prescription.
Typically, at least two rings are within your pupil area, but this varies as your pupil expands and contracts due to varying light.
Concentric ring bifocal contact lenses can be made of either soft or rigid (GP) material. The locations of the powers will vary:
- GP bifocals usually have the distance power in the center (called center-distance).
- Soft bifocal contact lenses usually have the near power in the center (center-near).
- Some soft multifocal designs are center-near on your dominant eye but center-distance on your non-dominant eye.
Aspheric Multifocal Contact Lenses
These multifocal contact lens designs work more like progressive eyeglass lenses, where the different prescriptive powers are blended across the lens. Unlike eyeglasses, however, aspheric contact lenses are simultaneous vision lenses, so your visual system must learn to select the proper prescription for the moment.
This is the only type of multifocal contact lens that can be described as "progressive." It's also concentric, like the concentric ring designs, and it has become the most popular type of multifocal contact lens.
Will Bifocal Contact Lenses Work for Me?
Bifocal contact lenses have been around for many years, but until recently they weren't very popular.
Older bifocal designs didn't satisfy many people, leading to frustration among wearers and prescribers alike.
Today, new technology has produced more successful designs, as well as a greater variety of designs. So if one design doesn't work for you, another might.
Your doctor may also try these related techniques:
- Monovision involves using single-vision lenses to put your near prescription on one eye and your distance prescription on the other.
- Modified monovision uses a single-vision lens on one eye and a multifocal lens on the other.
Which Bifocal Contact Lens is Right for Me?
Two factors that your eye care practitioner will consider in choosing a bifocal contact lens are pupil size and your "add," or near prescription.
There are no hard and fast rules. But in general, low adds are better suited to an aspheric multifocal. Alternating vision, accomplished with a translating bifocal, is a better choice for high adds. Too large a pupil can be problematic for an aspheric multifocal lens.
You may need to try different bifocal contact lens designs before finding the one that's right for you. Many practitioners offer free trial lenses to help you through the process.
Keep in mind that although trial lenses are free, your doctor will still charge you for the multifocal fitting process, which can be more time-consuming than a regular contact lens fitting.
See your eye doctor to determine if bifocal contact lenses make sense for your needs and to identify the best lens for you.
Nancy Del Pizzo also contributed to this article.
[Page updated March 2014]