Sep 27, 2011 4:18 PM
Exercising your body makes it stronger. So can exercising your eyes make your vision stronger, too? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that eye exercises improve vision. Your need for glasses is based on the shape of your eye, the size of your pupil, and the ability to shift focus, which declines as we age.
Still, like many alternative remedies, natural vision correction has supporters among some practitioners of holistic medicine and their patients. If you are looking into natural vision correction, here's some background to help you understand the issue.
The origin of natural vision correction dates back more than 90 years to William H. Bates, MD. He was an ophthalmologist who wrote Perfect Sight Without Glasses. Bates felt so strongly that wearing eyeglasses over the long term made vision worse that he kept an anvil in his office to smash patients' lenses on it. He called his idea the Bates Method. It promoted relaxation as the solution to poor vision. Still used today, techniques include palming or covering your eyes with your hands, sitting in the sun or in front of a lamp with your eyes closed, doing eye exercises, swaying, and looking for certain colors.
Decades later, eye care professionals such as Marc R. Grossman, OD, LAc,a holistic eye doctor in New Paltz, N.Y., say the Bates method went too far, too fast, but they continue to look beyond glasses for natural ways to fix vision.
"The Bates Method tells people to get rid of their glasses and that doesn't work. You have to give people a slightly weaker prescription so they can work into it gradually. Most people's eyes get worse little by little, so their eyes have to get better little by little," says Grossman.
A big part of Grossman's therapy is eye exercise. "The goal is to make the eye muscles more flexible," he says. "Your dentist tells you to brush your teeth to keep them healthy, but your eye doctor doesn't tell you how to keep your eyes healthy." In addition to general eye exercises, Grossman recommends other exercises, depending on your eye condition. One exercise intended to slow the rate of myopia (nearsightedness) involves tracing an imaginary horizontal figure eight with your eyes.
Other vision correction methods that Grossman uses may seem like child's play. "Magic Eye 3-D pictures have been very helpful in improving eyesight as part of a program," he says, having written two Magic Eye 3-D books. "You have to really relax your mind and eyes to look at the images."
Grossman also recommends nutritional supplements to keep eyes healthy. He says that bilberry, lutein, zeaxanthin, and omega-3 fatty acids may help myopia. He has also recommended acupressure and massage to increase blood flow to the eyes, and acupuncture to improve vision.
Grossman says he has seen positive results with natural vision correction in patients over the last 31 years. Yet, the American Optometric Association and American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) say there is no scientific evidence that such methods work.
In 2004, the AAO studied whether natural vision care could improve sight. The techniques included eye exercises, massage, muscle relaxation, and nutritional supplements.
Some patients said the techniques helped their nearsightedness (myopia). But when researchers tested the patients' vision, it had not changed. The AAO concluded that patients who reported improved vision may have experienced the "placebo effect:" If you think something will work, you think you see better even if vision has not changed.
In 2007, the AAO also looked at the effect of acupuncture on sight. That study did not find enough evidence to prove that acupuncture helps eye conditions.
"I've seen multiple patients over the years who have been through natural vision correction when they were younger. It did not put off middle-aged vision loss," says Lee Duffner, MD, an ophthalmologist with Eye Surgery Associates in Hollywood, Fla., and a clinical correspondent for the AAO.
Besides hearing from his own patients, Duffner points out that Bates' theory of how the eye works runs contrary to science. "Bates' idea was that the eye focuses due to ocular muscles on the outside of the eye. This is not the accepted method. The lens inside the eye has to change its shape. And the focusing capability of the eye cannot be improved to any meaningful degree," says Duffner.
Why is there still such interest in natural vision correction if there's no evidence that it works? "Many therapeutic methods that have no value have hung around for a long time simply because they didn't hurt anybody," says Duffner. "They may not have been effective, but as long as they didn't cause damage, they were tolerated."
If you want to try natural methods to correct your vision, know that you're going to have to put in consistent effort, and may not have sustained or substantial improvement in vision.
"Most of the time when I see patients I try to talk them out of this type of therapy," says Grossman. "They're going to have to do it for at least 20 minutes a day, four to five times a week to get results. So if you're not willing to do that, don't bother." And even if you do put in the work, the evidence suggests that you will still need glasses.