Reading Glasses: What to Know Before Buying

When you reach the point of not being able to read up close without stretching your arms to the limit, you may need to consider single-vision reading glasses. Reading glasses come in two main styles: full frames, in which the entire lens is made in the reading prescription, and half-eyes, the smaller "Ben Franklin" style glasses that sit lower down on the nose. Full reading glasses are suitable for people who spend a great deal of time concentrating on material close-up. If you try to look up and across the room through the reading lenses, everything appears blurry.
In contrast, half-eye reading glasses allow you to look down and through the lenses for near work, and up and over them to see in the distance. Generally, people who have never needed glasses in the past will start out with a pair of reading glasses rather than bifocals or no-line progressive lenses, which are usually a better choice if you have a need for distance as well as near correction. Handy accessories for temporary use, such as an evening in a dimly lit restaurant, include tiny foldable readers that fit in pen-sized cases and magnifiers that hang around your neck like a pendant.
You may have even seen plastic lenses mounted in credit card-sized holders that slip easily in a wallet — horrible for reading a book, but fine for those moments of desperation when you just want to know if the menu says "filet de boeuf" or "foie gras." Also available are tinted reading glasses with UV protection for wearing outdoors in the sun; a popular type is the sunglass bifocal, with a nonprescription upper half for looking far away and a reading prescription in the lower half for close up.


Why Custom-Made Reading Glasses Are Usually Better Than Pre-Fabricated Ones

Reading glasses can be custom-made for each individual through an optical dispenser, or they can be purchased "ready-made" at a pharmacy or department store. Ready-made readers became popular in the 1990s: three times more pairs were purchased during that decade than ever before, at an estimated rate of 30 million pairs per year. They are less expensive than custom eyewear, allowing you to own several pairs for a small amount of money. Ready-made reading glasses are available in lots of fun styles and colors, too, so you can experiment with fashion, purchasing a somewhat outrageous pair of glasses without risking a lot of money.
If you don't like the style, you can always get another inexpensive pair with a more conservative look. Pre-made reading glasses also allow you to stash extra pairs in different rooms of the house, as well as in your car, office, briefcase, purse, boat, and so on. One drawback to purchasing ready-made ("drugstore") reading glasses is that they are essentially "one-size-fits-all" items. The prescription is the same in both lenses, and the location of the optical center of the lenses is not customized for each wearer. Most people do not have exactly the same prescription in both eyes, and almost everyone has at least a small amount of astigmatism correction in their prescriptions.
Headaches, eye strain, and even nausea can result from wearing reading glasses that are too far off from your actual prescription or that have optical centers too far away from the center of your pupils. If you experience these problems, visit your eye doctor for a customized reading glasses prescription. Also, don't confuse reading glasses with computer eyewear. If you're using reading glasses to try to view your computer screen, it's probably not working very well. For one thing, reading printed matter is done at a closer range than reading text on a computer screen. Also, if your reading glasses are the type that force you to lean your head back in order to view your monitor, you're placing unnecessary strain on your neck muscles. Computer users really should invest in prescription computer glasses.
When choosing ready-made reading glasses, always examine the lenses for little bubbles, waves, or other defects. Insist on the best quality, and if you can't find it in ready-made readers, buy a custom-made pair, which many eye care practitioners offer at special prices.


The Danger of Forgoing an Eye Exam

The other, more serious problem with using pre-fabricated reading glasses has less to do with the glasses than with one of the reasons that people purchase them. Some people head to the drugstore instead of the eye doctor when they notice that it's time for a stronger correction. In fact, a recent survey of presbyopes revealed that 17 percent purchased readers because they "didn't want to bother with an eye exam."
Common sense and good eye health dictate that you should consult your eye doctor when you need a change in prescription, or at least once every two years. The need for a new pair of reading glasses may be nothing more than the natural aging process at work. But it might also signal a serious problem with your eyes that can be treated if caught in time.
Glaucoma, for example, is a serious eye disease that has no symptoms at first but can steal your vision if it's not controlled with medication. A simple test can detect glaucoma in its early stages, but you'll need to visit your eye doctor for an eye exam in order to have the test.