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Amblyopia (Lazy Eye) In Children: Diagnosis, Treatment, And Vision Rehabilitation

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedFebruary 29, 2024

Amblyopia is a condition that usually develops during childhood and is the primary cause of vision impairment in children. Approximately 3 out of 100 children have this condition. If not treated promptly, this developmental challenge in children can have long-term effects such as vision loss.

Parents often find themselves at a loss, witnessing their child struggling with vision, impacting their daily activities. The sense of helplessness and worry about a child's future vision can be overwhelming. Understanding that early detection and treatment can make a substantial difference is crucial.

In this article, you will learn about amblyopia, the signs to look out for, the importance of early intervention, and the most effective treatments available. We aim to provide practical guidance and hope, empowering you with the knowledge to help your child navigate and overcome amblyopia.

🔑Key Takeaways

  • Amblyopia, often called "lazy eye," is a visual condition that can impact the normal development of vision in either one or both eyes. It occurs most often during infancy or early childhood and is usually diagnosed before age 3 or 5.
  • The primary causes of amblyopia include strabismus, refractive amblyopia, and deprivation amblyopia.
  • Symptoms of amblyopia can be hard to notice, but parents may see their child squinting, shutting one eye, or tilting their head.
  • Amblyopia can have long-term effects, such as vision loss if left untreated. Early detection and intervention, like optical correction or eye patching, are crucial for preventing long-term effects.
  • Strabismus is a condition where the eyes are misaligned, and one eye may turn in, out, up, or down. The misalignment leads the brain to ignore visual input from the misaligned eye, thus preventing double vision.
  • Refractive amblyopia arises when there is a significant difference in the refractive state of at least 1 diopter between the two eyes, and it is more likely to cause amblyopia when the more ametropic eye receives a blurred image.
  • Deprivation amblyopia occurs when eye diseases or conditions prevent the light stimulus from reaching the retina, hindering the normal visual process. It can also result from anatomical deficits of the retina or optic nerve or abnormal eye movement disorders.
  • Diagnosing amblyopia involves a series of eye examinations and understanding its signs and symptoms. Early detection and treatment can substantially affect a child's vision.
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Understanding Amblyopia

Amblyopia, also known as “lazy eye,” is a disorder that affects the development of vision in one or both eyes. The affected eye(s) cannot achieve normal visual clarity even with prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses. This condition typically occurs during infancy or early childhood and is usually diagnosed before ages 3 or 5.

Research shows that amblyopia is more prevalent in males (1.40%) than in females (1.24%), according to a study involving 4,645,274 children and 7,706 patients.

The primary causes of amblyopia include:

  • Strabismus: Strabismus is a condition marked by the misalignment of the eyes, resulting in one eye turning inwards, outwards, upwards, or downwards. Due to this misalignment, the brain actively disregards the visual input from the affected eye to prevent the occurrence of double vision.
  • Refractive Amblyopia: Refractive amblyopia occurs when there exists a noticeable difference in the refractive state, with at least a 1-diopter gap between the two eyes. It is more likely to cause amblyopia when the more ametropic eye receives a blurred image, as the fovea of the good eye is focused. Anisometropic amblyopia affects approximately 4.7% of children and can be myopic, astigmatic, or hypermetropic.
  • Deprivation Amblyopia: Deprivation amblyopia occurs when eye diseases or conditions prevent the light stimulus from reaching the retina, thus hindering the normal visual process. It can also result from anatomical deficits of the retina or optic nerve or abnormal eye movement disorders.

Several risk factors can contribute to the development of amblyopia. These include:

  • Family history of the condition
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • History of developmental delays

🩹Health Note

Amblyopia is different from other visual impairments in children, such as nearsightedness or farsightedness. While nearsightedness and farsightedness can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses, amblyopia requires early detection and treatment to prevent permanent vision loss.

Diagnosis of Amblyopia

Early detection of vision problems is crucial for the healthy development of young children. Diagnosing amblyopia involves a series of eye examinations and understanding its signs and symptoms. Here's how amblyopia is diagnosed:

1. Visual Acuity Tests

Visual acuity tests are a type of eye exam that measures how well a person can see. Visual acuity tests are typically recommended for children aged 3 years and above to detect visual defects such as amblyopia. These tests include both visual acuity and stereo acuity testing.

A study on 1,245 kindergarteners evaluated the effectiveness of traditional vision screening in detecting amblyopia. The study found that vision screening successfully identified visual defects in 94.2% of the patients tested. This highlights the importance of regular visual acuity tests in detecting and treating vision problems at an early age.

2. Optical Tracking

Ocular tracking is a technique used to measure eye movement and has been suggested to identify minor irregularities in eye fixation, which could indicate the presence of amblyopia. However, most eye-tracking devices relying on the reflection of the cornea or the pupil are not sensitive enough to detect these small changes in fixation.

3. Optokinetic Nystagmus

Around 6 months, babies typically develop a reflex known as optokinetic nystagmus. This reflex manifests as a rapid horizontal re-fixation movement when a person tries to track a moving object.

Notably, the absence of optokinetic nystagmus in one eye can indicate amblyopia. It's worth noting that this test lacks the necessary precision for effective amblyopia screening.

4. Visual Evoked Potentials (VEP)

Visual Evoked Potentials (VEP) is a diagnostic test suitable for children aged 6 months to 5 years. The test is 97% sensitive in detecting visual abnormalities and has a specificity of 80%, meaning it can accurately identify visual disorders in most cases.

The VEP is a non-invasive test that gauges the electrical signals produced by the brain in response to visual stimuli, offering valuable insights into the function of the visual pathway. It is a safe and reliable method for diagnosing visual disorders in infants and young children.

5. Photoscreening

Another method used for vision screening in children is photo screening, which can be performed as early as 6 months to 3 years of age. With a positive predictive value (PPV) of 94.2%, photo screening is an effective tool for identifying common vision pathologies such as refractive error (83.9%) and strabismus (12.1%). Through timely detection and treatment, photo screening can help prevent vision problems from impacting a child's learning and development.

6. Autorefraction

Autorefraction is another diagnostic test that is recommended for children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. The test has a sensitivity rate of 88%, which means it can detect vision problems accurately in many cases.

However, its specificity rate of 58% indicates a moderate risk of false positives. Overall, the test can provide valuable information about a child's vision health and help identify potential issues early on.

Challenges in Diagnosing Amblyopia for Children

Diagnosing amblyopia in young children can be challenging due to several reasons. Firstly, some children may be unable to communicate their vision problems effectively, making it difficult for the ophthalmologist or optometrist to assess their vision accurately.

Secondly, young children may be unable to cooperate during an eye exam, resulting in inaccurate readings. Thirdly, detecting amblyopia in its initial stages can pose a challenge, as the symptoms may not readily manifest.

Finally, parents may lack awareness regarding the significance of routine eye examinations for their children. Insufficient awareness can result in delays when it comes to diagnosing and treating amblyopia.

Amblyopia Treatment

With proper intervention, it is possible to diminish or even eliminate the symptoms of amblyopia, including wandering eyes, blurred vision, double vision, poor depth perception, and headaches. It is essential to seek professional help as soon as possible to increase the chances of successful treatment.

Studies have shown that amblyopia can be treated successfully in children up to 7 to 12 years old, although it may be more responsive to treatment in younger children. The available treatments for amblyopia include conventional methods and vision therapy.

Conventional Treatment Methods

Several conventional treatment methods are widely used and accepted in the medical community when treating various conditions. These methods are based on scientific research and have been tested over time to prove their effectiveness. Conventional treatment methods include:

1. Optical Correction

The first step in amblyopia treatment involves prescribing the optimal refractive correction for the affected eye. This treatment aims to correct any refractive errors contributing to the condition, such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism. Ensuring appropriate prescription glasses or contact lenses is essential in improving visual acuity and maintaining clear vision for the amblyopic eye.

Studies have shown that among children in the optical correction alone group, 25% showed an improvement of two or more lines of visual acuity. Therefore, seeking proper treatment for amblyopia, including optical correction, is crucial to prevent further vision loss and improve visual function.

2. Patching

Another treatment of amblyopia involves a technique called patching. This technique entails covering the better-seeing eye with a patch to encourage the amblyopic eye to work harder and improve vision.

According to a study, for children under 7 years old with moderate amblyopia, prescribing 2 hours of daily patching is equally effective as prescribing 6 hours of daily patching. It is important to note that some children with moderate amblyopia may respond to as little as 2 hours of patching.

In the case of severe amblyopia in children under 7 years old, prescribing 6 hours of daily patching with 1 hour of nearby activities is as effective as prescribing full-time daily occlusion with 1 hour of nearby activities.

For older children aged 7 to 12 years, amblyopia can be successfully treated with either 2 hours of daily patching or weekend atropine as the initial treatment. It is important to note that the success of patching therapy may vary depending on the severity of the amblyopia and the child's age.

3. Atropine Penalization

Atropine penalization is a treatment approach that uses atropine eye drops to blur the vision in the stronger eye intentionally. This, in turn, encourages the amblyopic eye to work harder and develop better vision.

Atropine penalization is an effective alternative to patching, even in severe cases of amblyopia. The dosage and guidelines for atropine treatment may vary based on the severity and age of the child. Studies have shown that children treated with atropine have significantly improved visual acuity, with atropine success rates ranging from 78% to 100%.

Furthermore, it has been observed that there are no cases of persistent reverse amblyopia after discontinuation of atropine treatment. Therefore, atropine penalization is a viable treatment option for amblyopia that can yield positive results and improve children's vision.

4. Bangerter Filter Treatment

Bangerter filter treatment is a translucent filter-based intervention applied to the lens of the better-seeing eye to degrade its vision and promote the use of the amblyopic eye. According to randomized controlled trials, Bangerter filter treatment effectively improves visual acuity in children with moderate amblyopia. Children using Bangerter filters demonstrated visual acuity improvement similar to patching, and there was no significant difference based on the type of activities prescribed (near or far).

In particular, studies have found that full-time wear of Bangerter filters can be as effective as 2 hours of daily patching for children with moderate amblyopia. After 24 weeks of treatment, visual acuity was improved by an average of 1.9 lines in the Bangerter group and 2.3 lines in the Patching group, with no significant difference between the two groups.

These findings indicate that utilizing Bangerter filters as a treatment can be a viable alternative to patching, with no notable difference in effectiveness between the two interventions.

5. Surgery

Most people refer to "lazy eye surgery," typically to strabismus surgery, a surgical procedure used to correct the misalignment of the eyes. While surgery is not a treatment option for amblyopia, it can be a viable option for correcting eye misalignment caused by strabismus. If you are considering eye muscle surgery, it is essential to understand the facts.

Eye muscle surgery is a procedure that involves loosening or tightening the eye muscles to alter the alignment of the eyes relative to each other. There are two main types of eye muscle surgery: recession and resection.

Recession surgery involves detaching an eye muscle and then reattaching it further away from the front of the eye to weaken the muscle. This procedure is ideal for correcting overactive eye muscles that pull the eyes too much in one direction.

Resection surgery, conversely, involves removing a portion of an eye muscle to make the muscle stronger. This procedure suits underactive eye muscles that do not pull the eyes enough in one direction.

💡Did You Know?

Eye alignment surgeries are frequently performed in the US, with an estimated 1.2 million surgeries conducted annually. This surgical technique ranks as the country's third most common eye surgery.

Vision Rehabilitation and Long-Term Management Of Amblyopia For Children

Managing amblyopia necessitates various therapeutic approaches, such as vision therapy, to improve visual function and compensate for vision loss. Among these approaches, vision rehabilitation is pivotal in enhancing the visual abilities of children affected by this condition. Its primary benefit lies in improving visual acuity and binocular vision and developing visual processing abilities.

Techniques and Activities Used in Vision Rehabilitation

The process of vision rehabilitation is a comprehensive journey that involves a wide range of techniques and activities. These techniques and activities are carefully designed to cater to the unique needs of children with amblyopia, and they work collectively to help improve their visual skills. Some of the techniques and activities used in vision rehabilitation include:

1. Vision Therapy and Visual Skills Training

Vision therapy and visual skills training involves specific exercises and activities to improve visual skills. Vision therapy is a highly effective treatment for amblyopia in children and adults and aims to improve the patient's visual acuity, binocular vision, and visual processing abilities. For instance, some examples of vision therapy exercises include:

  • Near and distant viewing: Children can stand in an open space and pick a distant object, like a tree or a building, to look at. They should then extend their arm and focus on their thumb (near view) held in front of them. They should repeatedly switch their focus around five times between their thumb and the distant object. This exercise helps improve their ability to shift focus between near and distant objects.
  • Around the world: Children will stand or sit in a quiet place. They should follow the instructions, which include looking up, down, left, and right and making circular eye movements. This exercise helps with tracking and saccading, which are important visual skills.
  • Alphabet ball: Children will draw letters on a ball or balloon and pass it back and forth with a partner. As they pass the ball, they call out the last letter they see before catching it. This game can be enjoyable for children while improving their visual skills.
  • Pencil pushups: Children will hold a pencil in front of their faces and focus on a single letter on the pencil. They should slowly bring the pencil closer to their nose until they see double, then move it away. This exercise should ideally be done for 15 minutes daily under supervision, five days a week.
  • Reading, Writing, Puzzles: Children can participate in age-appropriate reading, writing, and puzzle-solving activities. These tasks encourage them to use their near vision and practice shifting their focus between different objects.

2. Assistive Devices and Technology

Virtual reality has been shown to enhance vision in individuals with amblyopia by improving visual acuity and binocular function. Virtual reality technology has been tested in children to treat this common form of childhood vision loss. A new treatment called binocular digital therapy has been developed that offers a fun alternative to traditional therapies.

Various companies have conducted clinical trials to test virtual reality-based treatments for lazy eyes. Among them, Luminopia One has become the first to receive FDA approval for prescription use. The VR headset incorporates therapeutic modifications to streaming content, and children must use the headset for an hour every day, six days a week.

With 700+ hours of content, including popular providers like Dreamworks, Sesame Street, and Nickelodeon, children can enjoy the treatment while improving their vision. The headset displays a less sharp image to the dominant eye and a sharper one to the weaker eye while concealing specific video sections from each eye individually. This design promotes the coordinated use of both eyes.

In a clinical trial involving children aged 4 and older, those who received treatment with both Luminopia and corrective glasses for 12 weeks experienced greater improvements in their vision compared to children who solely wore corrective glasses. Notably, nearly 90% of the children continued using Luminopia throughout the study, indicating their satisfaction and commitment to the treatment.

Importance of Family Support and Involvement in Vision Rehabilitation

The role of family in the vision rehabilitation process cannot be overstated, especially when it comes to treating children with amblyopia. The involvement and support of family members are considered a vital cornerstone in enhancing the effectiveness of the treatment. To achieve this, it is recommended to incorporate a family-centered care approach in vision rehabilitation.

This approach emphasizes the importance of family support and involvement throughout the entire process. Family-centered care is a holistic approach that considers the needs and preferences of the family as a whole rather than just the individual patient.

This means that the family is not just a passive observer in the treatment process but an active participant. The family is encouraged to ask questions, provide feedback, and make suggestions, all of which can help improve the quality of care.

Prevention and Early Intervention

Amblyopia should be detected as early as possible, preferably during childhood. Early detection can lead to more effective treatment and better long-term outcomes. Here are some prevention and early intervention for Amblyopia:

  • Regular Eye Check-ups: Parents and guardians are encouraged to schedule regular eye check-ups for children. These check-ups can help identify potential vision problems, including Amblyopia, at an early stage.
  • Symptom Recognition: It's essential to be vigilant and recognize potential symptoms of Amblyopia, such as squinting, frequent tilting of the head while focusing, and poor depth perception. These can be early indicators of the condition.
  • Vision Screening in Schools: Implementing vision screening programs in educational institutions can be a proactive measure to identify Amblyopia in children. Children spend significant time in schools, making them ideal for early detection.
  • Parental Vigilance: Parents should pay attention to any signs of visual abnormalities in their children and not dismiss them as quirks. Trusting your instincts and seeking professional evaluation when something feels off is crucial.

Wrap-Up

Amblyopia can have long-term effects like vision loss if not treated promptly. Early detection and intervention are crucial to prevent vision loss and help children overcome this challenge. As parents, it is essential to be aware of the signs and symptoms of amblyopia and seek professional help from a pediatric ophthalmologist.

With the right diagnosis and treatment, it is possible to diminish or eliminate this condition and provide your child with the gift of clear vision for a lifetime. Remember, your child's vision is priceless, and it's worth taking the time to ensure their visual health is taken care of.

FAQs On Amblyopia

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Can amblyopia be cured naturally?

Incorporating exercise for amblyopia into your treatment plan can be highly effective. Various eye exercises can be performed in the comfort of your home. Your ophthalmologist may prescribe some exercises as homework. While certain exercises may require that the stronger eye be patched during the exercise, others may require using both eyes simultaneously.

Can LASIK be used to treat amblyopia?

The use of LASIK, while effective in addressing refractive amblyopia, has limited efficacy in treating other forms of lazy eye. It is important to note that this treatment option is not recommended for children.

Does amblyopia worsen as a person ages?

Although amblyopia's visual impairments typically begin in childhood, they can persist into adulthood, potentially causing permanent vision loss if untreated.

Can amblyopia have an impact on a person's IQ level?

According to a study, there was no significant difference between amblyopic and non-amblyopic patients regarding IQ levels.

Could amblyopia lead to depression?

Amblyopia can impact academic performance and self-esteem and lead to increased frustration, isolation, and depression.