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Do eye exercises improve vision?

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What are eye exercises? And do eye exercises work?

Eye exercises generally consist of a series of eye and eye muscle movements designed to improve focus, strengthen muscles and increase eye comfort. 

Claims abound that eye exercises can help improve vision, but most optometrists and ophthalmologists are dismissive of eye exercise programs that promise to help you see better. Eye doctors say there is no scientific proof that eye exercises are effective.

Can eye exercises improve vision?

Eye exercises to improve vision have been around since the 1920s, when maverick ophthalmologist William Horatio Bates, MD, created a program of eye exercises that became known as the Bates Method.

The Bates Method has never been proven effective in providing significant or lasting vision improvement. Also, some activities recommended by Bates, including "sunning" — exposing the eyes to direct sunlight — and "palming"  — covering the closed eyes with the palms of the hands — could damage the eyes.

Most modern programs of eye exercises to improve vision are based (at least in part) on the Bates Method.

To better understand if eye exercises that promise "natural vision improvement" can actually reduce refractive errors, you need to consider the anatomy of the eye and how it refracts light.

Problems with how the eye is shaped typically contribute to focusing errors such as nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia) and astigmatism. For example:

  • With farsightedness, the eyeball is too short and you can't focus on near objects because light rays entering your eye achieve a point of focus somewhere beyond your retina.

  • When you are nearsighted and your eyeball is too long, light rays have too far to go and "fall short" of achieving a point of focus on your retina.

  • With astigmatism, your cornea usually has an irregular shape, causing light rays entering your eye to split into different points of focus, creating blurry vision.

  • Another common vision problem is presbyopia, or age-related farsightedness. This occurs with aging when your eye's natural lens starts to lose elasticity and no longer can move properly to focus on close-up objects. This condition typically causes your near vision to start blurring, beginning around age 40.

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Questions to ask about eye exercises

Eye exercises typically make you move your eye muscles to create up-and-down, side-to-side or circular motions and make you change your point of focus to different distances.

So, if you’re thinking about trying eye exercises to improve your vision, consider these questions:

  • Will exercising your eyes change the basic shape of your eyeball, making it longer or shorter?

  • Will eye exercises alter the basic shape of your cornea, changing the angle of how light rays enter your eye to achieve focus?

  • If you have astigmatism, will exercising your eyes somehow reshape your eye's irregular surface?

  • If you have presbyopia, will eye exercises restore your eye's lens to its once youthful elasticity?

The likely answer is no, eye exercises won’t deliver on their promises of vision improvement.

Can eye exercises help strabismus?

Exercises to strengthen eye muscles have been effective for patients diagnosed with lazy eye (amblyopia) and crossed eyes (strabismus). These exercises are usually prescribed by eye doctors as part of a vision therapy program.

Many types of doctor-prescribed and -supervised vision therapy have been proven safe and effective by published research.

Of 221 children with symptomatic convergence insufficiency, a specific type of outward eye misalignment, 73 percent had a successful or improved outcome following a 12-week program of office-based vision therapy combined with eye exercises performed at home.

Improper use of these eye exercises can result in headaches, double vision and further eye strain, so you should only begin vision therapy under the guidance of an eye doctor.

“Eye exercises” for relieving eye strain

While you shouldn’t begin any eye exercise or vision therapy program without the supervision of an eye doctor, there are a few simple things you can do to relieve eye strain, especially of the digital kind:

  1. Blink: Blinking helps prevent irritation and dryness by delivering constant moisture to your eyes. People tend to blink far less often when they’re staring at a screen, and office environments tend to be on the dry side. If you find your eyes are overly dry, don’t hesitate to pick up some lubricating eye drops.

  2. Take a break: You should be taking at least one 10-minute break every hour. Stand up, move around and stretch. You can even take those peepers for a walk.

  3. Enforce the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at an object at least 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds. Doctors say that taking a few moments to focus far away on something other than your computer helps to reduce eye fatigue.

The verdict on eye exercises

Eye exercise programs occupy a nebulous space somewhere between medical science and folk remedy. 

Still, these unproven “miracle” programs can be found on the internet — along with conspiracy theories alleging that optometrists and ophthalmologists know the "truth" about the benefits of eye exercises but won't tell their patients. 

After all, eye doctors still have to sell eyeglasses, contact lenses and vision surgery services if they want to stay in business.

Before investing time and money in any self-help vision enhancement schemes, get professional advice from a certified eye care professional. 

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