Amblyopia (Lazy Eye)

Amblyopia, also known as lazy eye, is a vision development disorder in which an eye fails to achieve normal visual acuity, even with prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses.


Amblyopia begins during infancy and early childhood. In most cases, only one eye is affected. But in some cases, reduced visual acuity can occur in both eyes.

Particularly if lazy eye is detected early in life and promptly treated, reduced vision can be avoided. But if left untreated, lazy eye can cause severe visual disability in the affected eye, including legal blindness.

It's estimated that about 2 to 3 percent of the U.S. population has some degree of amblyopia.

Amblyopia Signs And Symptoms

Because amblyopia typically is a problem of infant vision development, symptoms of the condition can be difficult to discern.

Girl wearing eye patch for amblyopia. Boy wearing eye patch for amblyopia.
You can help your child accept patching by making it fun.

However, a common cause of amblyopia is strabismus. So if you notice your baby or young child has crossed eyes or some other apparent eye misalignment, schedule an appointment for a children's eye exam immediately — preferably with an optometrist or ophthalmologist who specializes in children's vision.

Another clue that your child may have amblyopia is if he or she cries or fusses when you cover one eye.

You can try this simple screening test at home by simply covering and uncovering your child's eyes (one eye at a time) when he or she is performing a visual task, such as watching television.

If your child is not bothered when one eye is covered, but objects when the other eye is, this may suggest that the eye you have covered is the "good" eye, and that the uncovered eye is amblyopic, causing blurred vision.

But a simple screening test is no substitute for a comprehensive eye exam.

Have your child's eyes examined as recommended to make sure he or she has normal vision in both eyes and that the eyes function together properly as a team.

What Causes Amblyopia?

There are three types of amblyopia, based on the underlying cause:

  • Strabismic amblyopia. Strabismus is the most common cause of amblyopia. To avoid double vision caused by poorly aligned eyes, the brain ignores the visual input from the misaligned eye, leading to amblyopia in that eye (the "lazy eye"). This type of amblyopia is called strabismic amblyopia.
  • Refractive amplyopia. Sometimes, amblyopia is caused by unequal refractive errors in the two eyes, despite perfect eye alignment. For example, one eye may have significant uncorrected nearsightedness or farsightedness, while the other eye does not. Or one eye may have significant astigmatism and the other eye does not.
     
    In such cases, the brain relies on the eye that has less uncorrected refractive error and "tunes out" the blurred vision from the other eye, causing amblyopia in that eye from disuse. This type of amblyopia is called refractive amblyopia (or anisometropic amblyopia).
  • Deprivation amblyopia. This is lazy eye caused by something that obstructs light from entering and being focused in a baby's eye, such as a congenital cataract. Prompt treatment of congenital cataracts is necessary to allow normal visual development to occur.

Amblyopia Treatment

In some cases of refractive amblyopia, normal vision can be achieved simply by fully correcting the refractive errors in both eyes with glasses or contact lenses. Usually, however, at least some patching of the "good" eye is needed to force the brain to pay attention to the visual input from the amblyopic eye and enable normal vision development to occur in that eye.

Treatment of strabismic amblyopia often involves strabismus surgery to straighten the eyes, followed by eye patching and often some form of vision therapy (also called orthoptics) to help both eyes work together equally as a team.

Patching may be required for several hours each day or even all day long and may continue for weeks or months.

Eyetronix
Flicker Glass by Eyetronix treats amblyopia by using rapid alternating occlusion to encourage the eyes to work together. Learn more.

If you have a lot of trouble with your child taking the patch off, you might consider a specially designed prosthetic contact lens that prevents light from entering the good eye but does not affect your child's appearance.

Though prosthetic contact lenses are more costly than a simple eye patch and require a contact lens exam and fitting, they can work wonders in difficult cases of amblyopia treatment when compliance with eye patching is poor.

In some children, atropine eye drops have been used to treat amblyopia instead of an eye patch. One drop is placed in your child's good eye each day (your eye doctor will instruct you). Atropine blurs vision in the good eye, which forces your child to use the eye with amblyopia more, to strengthen it. One advantage of using atropine eye drops is that it doesn't require your constant vigilance to make sure your child wears the patch.

In one large study of 419 children younger than 7 years of age with amblyopia ranging from 20/40 to 20/100 prior to treatment, atropine therapy produced comparable results to eye patching (though improvement in visual acuity in the amblyopic eye was slightly greater in the patching group). As a result, some previously skeptical eye care practitioners are using atropine as their first choice for amblyopia treatment over patching.

However, atropine does have side effects that should be considered: light sensitivity (because the eye is constantly dilated), flushing and possible paralysis of the ciliary muscle after long-term atropine use, which could affect the eye's accommodation, or ability to change focus.

Help For Older Children And Adults With Lazy Eye

For years, experts believed that if amblyopia treatment was not initiated very early in life, no improvement in visual acuity was possible. The critical period for intervention was said to be around age 8.

But it now appears that older children and even adults with long-stranding lazy eye can benefit from amblyopia treatment using computer programs that stimulate neural changes leading to improvements in visual acuity and contrast sensitivity.

One such program — called RevitalVision — has produced improved vision in older children with lazy eye and adults with long-standing amblyopia. The treatment generally consists of 40 training sessions of 40 minutes each, conducted over a period of several weeks.

In one clinical study of 44 amblyopic children and adults ranging in age from 9 to 54 years, 70.5 percent of the participants had a visual acuity improvement of 2 or more lines on a standardized eye chart after a full regimen of RevitalVision training sessions.

Currently, RevitalVision is the only FDA-approved computerized treatment for amblyopia. The program is approved for individuals age 9 and older with best corrected vision of 20/100 or better and little or no strabismus.

Other computer programs to treat lazy eye also are available and in use by eye doctors who specialize in children's vision and vision therapy.

Early Detection And Treatment Are Important

Though modern amblyopia treatments might improve vision in older children and adults, most experts agree that early detection and treatment of lazy eye is preferred for normal visual development and the best visual outcomes from amblyopia treatment.

The American Optometric Association recommends that all children have their first eye exam at 6 months of age, another exam at age 3 and a third exam prior to entering school to ensure vision is developing normally in both eyes and there is no risk of amblyopia.

Amblyopia will not go away on its own, and untreated lazy eye can lead to permanent visual problems. If later in life your child's stronger eye develops disease or is injured, he or she will depend on the poor vision of the amblyopic eye, so it is best to treat amblyopia early on.

In some cases, uncorrected refractive errors and amblyopia in young children can lead to behaviors that seem to indicate developmental or other disorders when the problem is purely visual. In March 2012, Emmelyn Roettger of Washington, D.C., was accepted into Mensa, the high-IQ society, as the youngest member ever at almost 3 years old. But when she was aged 9 months, she wasn't crawling or reaching for objects, and her doctors wondered if she had a form of autism.

Fortunately, her mother took Emme for an eye exam, which revealed farsightedness and amblyopia. With glasses and patching, she immediately began to interact normally with her environment and learn at a fast pace.

Without the eye exam and treatment, Emme's life might have taken a very different path. AAV

Amblyopia News Girl with long side bangs.

Don't Worry: Bangs Don't Cause Lazy Eye!

You may have read recently that wearing long bangs over one or both eyes could cause visual problems and even produce a lazy eye over time. It's a myth.

OK, it is sort of possible that bangs could cause a lazy eye, but only if:

  • It's a young child whose visual system is still developing.
  • One or both eyes are so well covered that the child can't even use them.
  • And the coverage is constant — all day and night.

So if your child's bangs grow like weeds, don't worry about it. — L.S.

Children With Amblyopia Read More Slowly Than Kids With Normal Vision, Study Finds

Children with amblyopia make more corrective eye movements while reading and read slower than normally sighted children, according to a study.

Boy using his finger to keep his place while reading a book.

In research conducted by Retina Foundation of the Southwest (Dallas), the reading performance of school-age children with amblyopia due to strabismus and/or anisometropia was compared with that of children without amblyopia who had undergone treatment for strabismus and children with normal vision and eye alignment.

All children in the study were fitted with a device called a Readalyzer that recorded their quick eye movements (saccades) while they silently read a grade-level paragraph of text. Reading rate, number of forward and corrective (regressive) saccades per 100 words, and time spent fixating on words were recorded. Then a quiz was administered to evaluate reading comprehension, and only data from children with at least 80 percent correct responses were included in the final analysis.

The results? The amblyopic children read more slowly and had more corrective saccades than nonamblyopic children with treated strabismus and normal controls. Fixation duration did not differ significantly among the two groups.

The researchers concluded that amblyopia was associated with slower reading in school-age children, and treating it could improve reading speed and efficiency.

In a review of the study published in Practice Update (an online publication for eye care providers), vision and learning expert Leonard J. Press, OD, said the study authors also "underscore the importance of recognizing amblyopia as a potential reason to request accommodation in school or on standardized testing for a student to receive additional time for completion of assignments."

The study was published online in November 2015 by the Journal of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. — G.H.

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Dr. Gary HeitingAbout the Author: Gary Heiting, OD, is senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 25 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear industry. His special interests include contact lenses, nutrition and preventive vision care.

Judith Lee, Gretchyn Bailey and Vance Thompson, MD, also contributed to this article.

Page updated March 2018