What Is Amblyopia?
The eyes function to perceive the form, depth and color of their surroundings and deliver that information to the brain, which registers an image in the mind. Humans have binocular vision, which means that both eyes work together to deliver one complete three-dimensional image to the brain.
Amblyopia, sometimes called “lazy eye,” is reduced vision in an eye that did not develop normal sight during early childhood. A person with amblyopia may have poor depth perception or blurred vision in one or both eyes. With between 2 percent and 4 percent of the population diagnosed with amblyopia, it is the most frequent cause of visual impairment in children.
Amblyopia results when each eye sends different visual feedback to the brain. This may be due to a misaligned or turned eye, clouded eye tissue or a difference in each eye’s ability to focus. To avoid double vision, the brain may shut off the distorted image coming from one eye. By the time we reach approximately the age of 7, the part of our brain that controls vision has patterned itself to work with our eyes. If the brain cannot get information from one or both eyes during early childhood, the vision center in the brain will pattern itself incorrectly and the condition can become permanent. A good rule of thumb in treating amblyopia is the earlier the treatment begins, the faster and better the result.
How Is Amblyopia Diagnosed?
Unless the child has a misaligned eye or a visible abnormality, it may not be easy for parents to recognize that their child is receiving a stronger visual image in one eye. In fact, parents often report that their child sees fine, because most children with only one normal eye appear to be developing normal vision.
Vision develops early in life, even before children are articulate enough to talk about their vision problems, so it is important to have your child properly screened. All American hospitals check newborns’ eyes before they leave the hospital. Your primary care physician will also do an eye examination at all well-child visits. He or she will examine the eyes’ alignment as well as shine a light onto the child’s retina. Older children will be asked to read eye charts while covering one eye — a test to determine the child’s visual acuity.
Any time a parent is concerned about a child’s vision, it is important to have a complete and thorough eye evaluation to screen for problems that could have long-term effects on the child’s sight.
How Is Amblyopia Treated?
The doctor’s first priority is to correct the vision in the amblyopic eye before permanent loss of vision or depth perception occurs. If amblyopia is left untreated in one eye and then the better-seeing eye becomes diseased or injured, the patient may suffer extremely poor vision, even legal blindness.
Amblyopia treatment also depends on what is causing the problem. Amblyopia is typically secondary to conditions like strabismus (misalignment), refractive errors or clouded eye tissue. These may need to be treated separately from the amblyopia and include treatments ranging from glasses to surgery. Many treatments for childhood amblyopia do not involve surgery, and a parent should not be afraid to seek medical attention. Early treatment for amblyopia is critical to normal vision and is not something a parent should delay.
What Are the Physical Effects of Amblyopia?
A child with “lazy eye” may have a misaligned eye, a tilted head or a drooping eyelid. Because amblyopia decreases vision and depth perception in one or both eyes, you may notice some secondary physical reactions in your child. Your child may appear clumsy simply because he or she cannot completely see the obstacles in his or her path. An undiagnosed child may seem slow to notice things or may fail to pick up on visual cues. With early detection and correction, these physical effects may completely disappear. If not corrected, amblyopia can lead to permanent loss of vision.
What Are the Emotional Effects of Amblyopia?
Being physically different may or may not affect the very young child, but it can be devastating to the older, more socially conscious child. A misaligned eye or a drooping eyelid can provoke unkind responses from other children and affect a child’s social development. If not corrected early in childhood, a person with amblyopia may have to deal with insensitive reactions throughout life.
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