Amblyopia

Topic Overview

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One cause of amblyopia is strabismus, which means not being able to focus both eyes on the same thing. For more information, see the topic Strabismus.

What is amblyopia?

Illustration of the anatomy of the eye Amblyopia is a childhood problem that happens when one eye is weaker than the other. The brain chooses to take in images from the stronger eye and ignore images from the weaker eye. This means your child uses the strong eye more than the weak eye. If the weak eye doesn’t have to work, it isn’t able to develop good vision. This leads to poor vision in the weaker eye.

Amblyopia usually affects only one eye.

The problem starts between birth and about age 7. Your child may not even know that he or she is using only one eye. Ignoring the images from the weak eye is an automatic response. Your child has no control over it.

Early treatment usually can reverse amblyopia. The younger your child is when treatment starts, the more likely your child is to have good vision.

Amblyopia is sometimes called “lazy eye.”

What causes amblyopia?

Any condition that prevents your child's eyes from forming a clear, focused image or prevents the normal use of one or both eyes can cause amblyopia. It may happen when:

  • The eyes do not focus on the same object. This is called strabismus. For example, one eye may point straight while the other looks in another direction. This sends two different images to the brain. In a young child who has strabismus, the brain chooses to receive the images from only one eye.
  • Your child is much more nearsighted or farsighted in one eye than in the other. If one eye sees much more clearly than the other, the brain ignores the blurry image from the weaker eye.
  • A problem prevents light from entering the eye for a long period of time. A problem in the lens, such as a cataract, or in the clear "window" at the front of the eye (the cornea) may cause amblyopia. These types of problems are rare but serious. Without early treatment, your child may never develop normal vision in the affected eye.

Your child may be more likely to develop amblyopia if someone else in your family has had it or your child had a premature birth or low birth weight.

What are the symptoms?

In most cases, amblyopia does not cause symptoms. But your child may:

  • Have an eye that wanders or does not move with the other eye.
  • Have eyes that do not move in the same direction or fix on the same point.
  • Cry or complain when one eye is covered.
  • Squint or tilt the head to look at something.
  • Have an upper eyelid that droops.

How is amblyopia diagnosed?

Your child’s doctor will do an eye exam. If the exam shows that your child has poor vision in one eye, the doctor may diagnose amblyopia after ruling out other causes.

To help make the diagnosis, your doctor will ask about symptoms, any family members who have had vision problems, other possible risk factors such as low birth weight, and whether your child has trouble reading, seeing the board in school, or watching TV.

Experts suggest that children have an eye checkup before age 5, and earlier in some cases. If you worry about your child’s eyes or vision, take him or her to an eye doctor. No child is too young for an eye exam.

How is it treated?

To treat amblyopia, your child must use the weak eye. This will force the eye to get stronger. Over time this corrects the vision in the weak eye.

Your doctor may suggest:

  • Blocking the strong eye with an eye patch.
  • Blurring the strong eye with eyedrops or glasses.

If another problem is causing the amblyopia, such as a cataract, it also needs to be treated.

Treatment is best started before age 6 and should begin before your child's vision has fully developed, around age 9 or 10. Later treatment will most likely be less helpful but may still improve vision in some cases. A child with amblyopia who does not get treatment may have poor vision for life.

After treatment ends, be sure to set up follow-up eye exams for your child. Amblyopia can return even after successful treatment.

How can you help your child cope with treatment?

Treatment sounds simple, but using an eye patch or glasses may bother your child. To help your child:

  • Explain that the glasses or patch will help his or her vision get better.
  • Tell your child’s friends, teachers, coaches, and others about the eye problem and what you and your child have to do for it. Ask for their help.
  • Use the patch, glasses, or eyedrops as your doctor says.
  • If possible, decorate the patch with your child. Ask your doctor first.
  • Do fun things, such as coloring and crafts, when your child is wearing the patch or glasses. This will help your child use the weak eye.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about amblyopia:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with amblyopia:

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  Amblyopia: Wearing an eye patch

Symptoms

Some children with amblyopia have an eye that wanders or does not move with the other eye. This is sometimes called "lazy eye." But in many children amblyopia is hard to detect. Signs that could point to amblyopia or a condition that raises the risk for amblyopia include:

  • Eyes that do not move together in the same direction.
  • Eyes that do not fix on the same point.
  • Crying or complaining when one eye is covered.
  • Squinting or tilting the head up, down, or sideways to look at something.
  • Cloudiness in the black center of the eye (cataract).
  • An upper eyelid that droops and covers most of the eye (ptosis).

Parents may not be able to tell whether a child has a vision problem. There may be no warning signs. And young children may not complain about poor vision. Most doctors recommend eye exams for children before they start school.

Exams and Tests

A doctor may diagnose amblyopia after detecting poor vision in one eye during an eye exam and ruling out other causes for this poor vision. Tests that find misaligned eyes (strabismus), unequal vision in the eyes, or any other condition that leads to amblyopia can help in the diagnosis.

Before the doctor tests your child's eyes, you will need to answer questions about:

  • The child's symptoms.
  • Any family history of vision problems.
  • Other possible risk factors, such as low birth weight or premature birth.
  • Whether teachers have noticed the child having trouble seeing the board or reading.

The doctor first checks the child's eyes to see if they both look in the same direction at the same time. A child with amblyopia may have an eye that wanders or lags behind the movement of the other eye.

For children age 2 and older, the doctor asks the child to identify or point to pictures or letters on the wall or on a handheld chart. These tests measure how well the child sees shapes and details both up close and far away. They may reveal that the child's eyes have unequal vision (anisometropia).

Other tests, including dilating the child's eyes, may be done to find out the need for corrective lenses and to check the structure and function of the eyes. The doctor may also perform tests to detect cataracts and strabismus, both of which raise the risk of amblyopia.

Vision screening can be done by a family doctor, pediatrician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner. If a problem is detected, the child will be referred to an ophthalmologist or optometrist for a full vision exam.

Doctors may have difficulty performing vision screenings on some small children. In these cases, a technique called photoscreening may be used. In photoscreening, a special camera or video system is used to obtain images of the eye and its reflexes. This technique requires minimal cooperation from the child. Photoscreening is not a substitute for a normal vision test, but it can provide information about sight-threatening conditions.

Other vision tests may be done to check the child's eyes and vision.

Early detection

The U.S. Preventive Screening Task Force recommends screening to detect amblyopia, strabismus, and defects in visual acuity in children younger than 5 years.1 Vision screening is recommended for infants who were either born at or before 30 weeks, whose birth weight was below 1500 g (3.3 lb), or who have serious medical conditions. The first screening is recommended between 4 and 7 weeks after birth.2

Do not wait if you detect possible signs of amblyopia in your child at an earlier age. No infant is too young for an eye exam by an ophthalmologist. And an exam should be done whenever you have questions about the health of your child's eyes.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that all infants be screened by 6 months of age by a pediatrician, a family doctor, or an ophthalmologist. Newborns and infants should be screened for eye problems—such as cataracts—that can prevent light from entering the eye and cause amblyopia. Amblyopia from these causes is rare but serious. Without early treatment, the child may not develop normal vision in the affected eye.

Eye exams for children and infants

Treatment Overview

Treatment for amblyopia begins as soon after diagnosis as possible. Early treatment usually can reverse the condition. Treatment is best started before age 6 and should begin before your child's vision has fully developed, which is around age 9 or 10. The younger the child is when treatment begins, the better his or her chances are for having good vision.

Amblyopia can be hard to correct after age 9. But studies suggest that treatment beyond this age can still correct amblyopia.3

Amblyopia is usually treated by an ophthalmologist.

To be successful, treatment must address both the amblyopia and its cause. Glasses or contact lenses help some conditions, such as unequal vision. Other conditions, such as cataracts and some forms of strabismus, may require surgery.

A child born with a cataract or any defect that keeps light out of the eye needs immediate treatment, because amblyopia may become permanent within a few months. Amblyopia that results from misaligned eyes (strabismus) or unequal vision in the eyes (anisometropia) usually develops more slowly.

Treatment corrects amblyopia by training the brain to use visual signals from the eye with weaker vision, building a stronger connection between the brain and the weak eye, and allowing vision to develop normally in that eye.

There are several ways to force the weak eye to get stronger. Methods include wearing an eye patch (also called occlusion) and using eyedrops or glasses (also called penalization).

Wearing an eye patch (occlusion)

When a patch covers the stronger eye, the brain is forced to use and develop better vision in the weaker eye.

Covering the stronger eye with an adhesive patch or a dark patch on an elastic band is the most common method of treatment. If a child wears glasses, the doctor may patch part of one lens. The child may have to wear the patch all the time or for just part of each day for a few weeks or months. Severe cases may take longer. One study showed that, along with an hour of activities that exercise near vision, wearing an eye patch daily for 2 hours makes improvements similar to wearing an eye patch daily for 6 hours.4

Using eyedrops or glasses (penalization)

These treatments blur or obscure vision in the child's dominant eye, rather than blocking it completely. This causes the brain to rely on the eye with weak vision. Eyedrops or glasses are used less commonly than eye patches. Eyedrops or glasses work best for mild cases of amblyopia. With severe amblyopia, it is difficult to blur or obscure the vision in the stronger eye enough that the brain will prefer to use the weaker eye. These treatments are also called penalization.

  • Eyedrops. The most common type of penalization treatment uses eyedrops (usually atropine) to blur the vision in the stronger eye and force the brain to use the weaker eye.
  • Glasses. Eyeglasses with a blurry lens over the stronger eye force the brain to use the weaker eye.

Your doctor will probably schedule some breaks during treatment to allow your child to use his or her strong eye, to prevent it from becoming damaged or weakened.

Amblyopia can return even after successful treatment. So children should have regular follow-up exams until age 9 or 10.

Home Treatment

At home or in school, do everything you can to make the treatment of your child's amblyopia a success. If eyedrops are used, make sure your child uses them as directed by your doctor. Explain the situation to your child's teachers so that they can help support your child during treatment.

To be effective, an eye patch must be worn as directed. Be sure to help your child comply with this treatment so that he or she can have the best vision possible. The major cause of failure in the treatment for amblyopia is that the child does not wear the patch as directed by the doctor.

Click here to view an Actionset. Amblyopia: Wearing an eye patch

If your child has received treatment for amblyopia, follow the doctor's advice about getting regular follow-up eye exams. Amblyopia can return even after successful treatment.

The younger the child is, the better the results of treatment for amblyopia will be. If you think that your child has amblyopia or another vision problem, schedule an eye exam. Start treatment for amblyopia as soon as the condition is discovered.

Amblyopia is hard to correct after about age 9. But treatment for some forms of amblyopia may improve vision even in older children and adults.3

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus
P.O. Box 193832
San Francisco, CA  94119-3832
Phone: (415) 561-8505
Fax: (415) 561-8531
E-mail: aapos@aao.org
Web Address: www.aapos.org
 

The American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus (AAPOS) provides information and encourages research on medical and surgical eye care for children and adults with strabismus.


Eye Patch Club (Prevent Blindness America)
211 West Wacker Drive
Suite 1700
Chicago, IL  60606
Phone: 1-800-331-2020
E-mail: info@preventblindness.org
Web Address: www.preventblindness.org/children/eye_patch_club_intro.html
 

Prevent Blindness America is a leading volunteer eye health and safety organization in the United States. It provides the general public and eye professionals with educational, community, and consumer services. Local affiliates exist in many states.

The Eye Patch Club is a special program that offers a newsletter, calendars, classroom guides, and other resources for families coping with a child's amblyopia treatment.


EyeSmart
P.O. Box 7424
San Francisco, CA  94120-7424
Phone: (415) 447-0213
Fax: (415) 561-8533
E-mail: eyesmart@aao.org
Web Address: www.geteyesmart.org
 

EyeSmart is a public information Web site provided by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. It provides general information and brochures on eye conditions and diseases and low-vision resources and services.


KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
10140 Centurion Parkway North
Jacksonville, FL  32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Fax: (904) 697-4125
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

This Web site is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health, from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This Web site offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly e-mails about your area of interest.


National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health
Information Office
31 Center Drive MSC 2510
Bethesda, MD  20892-2510
Phone: (301) 496-5248
E-mail: 2020@nei.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nei.nih.gov
 

As part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the National Eye Institute provides information on eye diseases and vision research. Publications are available to the public at no charge. The Web site includes links to various information resources.


References

Citations

  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2004). Screening for visual impairment in children younger than age 5 years: Recommendation statement. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Available online: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstf/uspsvsch.htm.
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Ophthalmology, et al. (2006). Screening examination of premature infants for retinopathy of prematurity. Pediatrics, 117(2): 572–576. [Errata in Pediatrics, 117(4): 1468 and Pediatrics, 118(3): 1324.]
  3. Pediatric Eye Disease Investigator Group (2005). Randomized trial of treatment of amblyopia in children aged 7 to 17 years. Archives of Ophthalmology, 123(4): 437–447.
  4. Pediatric Eye Disease Investigator Group (2003). A randomized trial of patching regimens for treatment of moderate amblyopia in children. Archives of Ophthalmology, 121(5): 603–611.

Other Works Consulted

  • American Academy of Ophthalmology Pediatric Ophthalmology/Strabismus Panel (1992, revised 2007). Amblyopia. National Guideline Clearinghouse. Available online: http://one.aao.org/asset.axd?id=990d3861-25e9-4bc9-ad7e-9796b932a4d9.
  • American Academy of Ophthalmology Pediatric Ophthalmology/Strabismus Panel (1992, revised 2007). Pediatric eye evaluations: I. Screening. II. Comprehensive ophthalmic evaluation. National Guideline Clearinghouse. Available online: http://www.ngc.org/summary/summary.aspx?doc_id=11753&nbr=006057&string=.
  • Diamond GR (2009). Amblyopia. In M Yanoff, JS Duker, eds., Ophthalmology, 3rd ed., pp. 1362–1367. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.
  • Wright KW (2008). Amblyopia and strabismus. In Pediatric Ophthalmology for Primary Care, 3rd ed., pp. 21–33. Elk Grove Village: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Credits

Author Jeannette Curtis
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christopher J. Rudnisky, MD, FRCSC - Ophthalmology
Last Updated July 16, 2009

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