The lowdown on eye exercises
If you wear glasses or contacts, chances are you’ve been at
least a little bit tempted to investigate the infomercials and books
promoting eye exercises to improve your eyesight without surgery. Some
programs even claim that faithful adherents may be able to give up
their glasses. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because
Purveyors of self-directed eye exercise programs have not conducted
randomized trials to verify the effectiveness of their programs, and
there is no medical evidence for their oft-stated claim that wearing
lenses weakens the eyes and necessitates ever-stronger prescription eyewear.
Furthermore, some programs are based on ideas that don’t quite
square with the anatomy and physiology of vision.
Practiced faithfully, eye exercises may actually help delay the need
for glasses or contacts in some people. But you don’t need to buy
a special program of exercises or follow prescribed visual gymnastics
to accomplish these things. If your eyes are tired from excessive close-up
work — such as staring at the computer — visual breaks to
focus on objects at longer distances are a good idea. And it’s
important to encourage your visual system to do its best.
Exercising eye muscles will not eliminate the most common maladies that
necessitate corrective lenses — namely, nearsightedness, farsightedness,
astigmatism, and presbyopia (age-related lens stiffening). Above all,
eye exercises will do nothing for glaucoma and macular degeneration.
What of the claim that glasses make eyes weaker and more dependent on
wearing them? It’s largely a matter of perception. People often
tolerate a lot of blur before they start wearing corrective lenses, Dr.
Steinert says, but “once they get used to the correction, the same
level of blur is no longer acceptable to them. So they perceive that
their eyes have been weakened.” Also, the natural progression to
stronger and stronger lenses that accompanies nearsightedness early in
life may create the impression that corrective lenses make eyes weaker.
Presbyopia (age-related lens stiffening) likewise progresses with time,
so a farsighted person will find it increasingly difficult to see well
without corrective eyewear. In none of these cases have glasses or contacts
weakened the eyes.
Will getting a weaker prescription than you’re used to somehow
train your eyes to see better, as some eye exercise programs advise?
It’s certainly possible that some people wear stronger glasses
than they need, so they may be able to back off their prescription a
bit. You need to use your accommodative system to keep it flexible, and
you can facilitate this by wearing lenses no stronger than you need.
Also, don’t be in a hurry to start wearing reading glasses. But
wearing weaker lenses than you need won’t help, especially once
presbyopia kicks in.
Until evidence-based research proves otherwise, it’s safe to assume
that nonmedical self-help eye exercise programs won’t keep you
out of glasses if you need them and won’t change the ultimate course
of your nearsightedness, farsightedness, presbyopia, or astigmatism.
As we age, eye exercises do absolutely nothing for glaucoma or macular
degeneration — serious diseases that require professional medical
September 2003 Update
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