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Why Eye Patches Are Often the Best First Treatment for Amblyopia

By January 6, 2021Patient Interest
Mini eye Patch with soft curve in black with multi-colored polka dot

In layman’s terms, treating amblyopia is just like helping two friends who are mad at each other get along again. In this case the ‘friends’ are your brain and one of your eyes – the one with amblyopia.

In amblyopia, one eye is weaker than the other in some way and has a harder time communicating with the brain. The brain eventually loses patience and retaliates by cutting off communication. The neglected eye then further deteriorates, and the condition worsens.

And while it’s not a perfect analogy, this is basically what’s happening. It is the healthy communication between the brain and your eyes that allows you to see, because this is how the brain processes whatever your eyes take in.

The reason an eye patch is so successful as a treatment for amblyopia – especially in young children ages 3-7 – is because by putting an eye patch over the good eye, it forces the brain and the disaffected eye to come back together, and work to improve communication until there’s no longer a problem.

Given enough time, with the amblyopic eye being forced to do all the heavy lifting for at least a couple hours a day while the good eye takes a break, the neural pathways will be strengthened enough so that the patient can experience normal vision.

How Effective Are Eye Patches at Treating Amblyopia?

You should always consult with a medical professional to determine your best treatment options, but clinical trials have found that kids with moderate amblyopia can get better by wearing an eye patch just two hours a day, and that this was just as effective as wearing it for up to six hours, which you will sometimes see recommended elsewhere.

Eye patches work very well as a treatment for amblyopia especially for children ages 3-7, which is an ideal age range to have your kids’ vision tested. The earlier in that range, the better. But eye patches will work just as well for people of almost any age for most cases of amblyopia.

About 25% of the time in the study, the amblyopia reoccurred. If this happens, the patient must start the treatment process over again. However, there is a way to increase your chances of avoiding this. The data found that by tapering down the time your child wears an eye patch each day, rather than just stopping cold turkey, the chances of the amblyopia returning declined.

According to the Mayo Clinic, using an eye patch or other treatments for amblyopia usually resolved the condition within weeks or months, though sometimes it could take as long as two years. It depends on the severity and the type of amblyopia, and the age of the patient. In general, young kids recover faster.

You also don’t want to wear the eye patch too long each day. Remember – just two hours a day was enough in the study. Wearing the eye patch too long can actually cause the stronger eye to now be the one feeling neglected by the brain, and it can then develop the same condition, thus requiring further treatment.

What Are My Other Treatment Options for Amblyopia?

There are other treatment options if your child doesn’t take well to the eye patch, though eye patches are the most affordable option of all. Being the most affordable and a clinically proven treatment is reason enough to try the eye patch first.

But some kids, and in particular older kids and teenagers, might not handle an eye patch very well. If they don’t, you have a few other options:

  • Bangerter filter – an opaque covering placed over your eyeglass lens on the dominant eye to make the weaker eye work harder
  • Atropine eye drops – these blur vision in the stronger eye and make the weaker eye work harder
  • Corrective lenses – these generally work best when the amblyopia is caused by only one eye being nearsighted or farsighted, and for astigmatism
  • Surgery – the most extreme and expensive option, and not always the most effective either – is the last option you should consider

Your medical professional may suggest additional alternatives. Be sure to speak with someone to determine you most ideal treatment options.

What Are the Symptoms of Lazy Eye and Who Is Most at Risk?

Again, the best time to catch and diagnose amblyopia is in young children. Treatment is simpler, works faster, and results in more permanent outcomes.

Children most at risk for having amblyopia have experienced one of more of these risk factors:

  • Family history of amblyopia – if anyone in your family has had it, get your kids screened
  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Developmental delays

Even if you don’t have any of those risk factors, optometrists have identified other symptoms of amblyopia to look out for. Observe your child and pay attention to their eyes. Look for these behaviors:

  • Struggling with hand-eye coordination
  • Lots of squinting or shutting one eye
  • Difficulty with precise eye movements – can they track things and notice small differences?
  • Reduced reading speed and comprehension
  • A cross-eyed appearance
  • Atypical eye movements like excessive blinking or flickering
  • Frequent tripping, running into things, and other accidents
  • Poor depth perception
  • Lots of eye rubbing

About 3% (3 out of 100) of kids are diagnosed with some form of amblyopia. While there are several forms of it, the most common ones are strabismic amblyopia, deprivation amblyopia, and refractive amblyopia. If you suspect your child might have amblyopia, the best course of action is to have their vision tested by an ophthalmologist so they can give you the specific diagnosis and recommend the treatment plan that is best for you.

What If We Do Nothing about Amblyopia?

If you do nothing, the vision of the patient will get worse. Amblyopia leads to permanent vision loss in 2.9% of adults. Also, sometimes the eye will start to droop (if it isn’t already). And there are other physical changes that can happen.

So you don’t want to let it go. The sooner a child gets treated, the easier, faster, more permanent, and less costly the treatment will be.

An eye patch doesn’t cost much at all, and you just wear it for a couple hours a day for a few months. In most cases, doing that is enough to correct the amblyopia.

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