If you’ve ever seen a young child with an eye patch over one eye, chances are that little one has a visual development condition called amblyopia, or lazy eye. But what exactly is amblyopia, what causes it, and how can you spot it? Let’s take a look.
When one or both eyes don’t develop properly in the visual systems of young children, it can result in this condition. Left untreated, that child won’t develop healthy vision and can even suffer vision loss.
Why is it called lazy eye?
Amblyopia happens when one eye becomes more dominant than the other — the stronger eye starts to take over, while the weaker eye gets progressively weaker. Sometimes the eye with decreased vision has a droopy look, or wanders inward or outward, which may be part of the reason it’s referred to as “lazy.”
But it turns out it’s not about laziness at all — it’s about the brain and the way the brain perceives light through the eyes.
Our brains rely on nerve signals from both eyes for our sight, but in about 3% of kids, the brain and one of the eyes fail to work together the way they should. When the brain can’t recognize the signals coming in, it essentially shuts off the signals from that so-called lazy eye.
What causes it?
There are a few eye conditions that can lead to lazy eye.
- Strabismus — This condition can look like crossed eyes, and occurs when the eyes don’t line up and can’t work together, often because there’s a muscle imbalance in the eyes.
- Refractive amblyopia — When a child has a refractive error (nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism) that’s much higher in one eye than the other, it can cause this type of lazy eye.
- Childhood cataracts — These cloudy patches in the lenses of the eye usually affect adults, but rarely occur in children. When they do, they can cause a severe type of amblyopia.
Family history, premature birth or low birth weight, as well as developmental disabilities can all play a part in causing lazy eye, as well.
What are the symptoms of lazy eye?
Many parents aren’t aware their child has vision problems, including amblyopia, until they visit the eye doctor. You should take your child for his or her first eye exam sometime between ages 3 and 5.
Here are some symptoms of amblyopia you can watch for:
- Poor depth perception
- One eye that appears to wander outward or inward, or otherwise don’t seem to work together
- Squinting or shutting one eye to see better
- Head tilting
Can lazy eye be treated?
There are three common ways that doctors treat lazy eye, all of which can be successful in correcting the visual imbalance between the two eyes, and essentially retrain the brain. Unless the primary cause is a cataract, surgery is not required.
- Prescribing glasses or contact lenses: If a refractive error is to blame, then glasses or contacts to correct the vision can do the trick.
- Covering the stronger eye with an eye patch: This forces the brain to use the weaker eye for vision. Depending on the severity of the amblyopia, kids may need to wear the patch from two hours a day to every hour they are awake. There are a lot of fun patterns and colors for kids to choose from, which can boost the appeal of this treatment.
- Using prescription eye drops: A medication called atropine causes temporary blurry vision in the stronger eye, which means the brain has to rely on the weaker eye.
Of course, any of these treatments might seem uncomfortable or even scary to your little one. Your eye doctor can help you determine the very best treatment that both you and your child can feel good about.