Vision therapy is perhaps one of the most controversial topics in vision care. Some eye doctors are strong advocates for vision therapy and testify to its benefits — especially for certain vision problems of children. But other eye doctors are not convinced of vision therapy's effectiveness and do not recommend it. This article will help you learn more about vision therapy so you can make an informed decision regarding its potential benefits for your child.
Vision therapy is a doctor-supervised, non-surgical and customized program of visual activities designed to correct certain vision problems and/or improve visual skills. Unlike eyeglasses and contact lenses, which simply compensate for vision problems, or eye surgery that alters the anatomy of the eye or surrounding muscles, vision therapy aims to "teach" the visual system to correct itself. Vision therapy is like physical therapy for the visual system, including the eyes and the parts of the brain that control vision.Vision therapy can include the use of lenses, prisms, filters, computerized visual activities and non-computerized viewing instruments. Non-medical "tools," such as balance boards, metronomes and other devices can also play an important role in a customized vision therapy program. It is important to note that vision therapy is not defined by a simple list of tools and techniques. Successful vision therapy outcomes are achieved through a therapeutic process that depends on the active engagement of the prescribing doctor, the vision therapist, the patient and (in the case of children) their parents. Overall, the goal of vision therapy is to treat vision problems that cannot be treated successfully with eyeglasses, contact lenses and/or surgery alone, and help people achieve clear, comfortable binocular vision. Many studies have shown that vision therapy can correct vision problems that interfere with efficient reading among schoolchildren. It also can help reduce eye strain and other symptoms of computer vision syndrome experienced by many children and adults. See below for more on conditions treated with vision therapy.
Vision therapy is sometimes called visual therapy, vision training, visual training or simply "VT." Another name often associated with vision therapy is "orthoptics." This term, which literally means "straightening the eyes," dates back to the 1850s and is limited to techniques for training eye muscles for the purpose of cosmetically straightening eyes that are misaligned due to strabismus. Orthoptics can be very successful and is one type of vision training, but the term "orthoptics" is not synonymous with "vision therapy," which describes a broader range of techniques used to treat a wider variety of vision problems.Also, whereas the emphasis in orthoptics is on eye muscles and eye alignment (at least cosmetically), the goal of vision therapy is to optimize the entire visual system, including the eyes and areas of the brain that control vision, visual perception and other vision-related functions. By treating the entire visual system, vision therapy aims to change reflexive (automatic) behaviors to produce a lasting cure. In many cases of strabismus, vision therapy can be a better treatment choice than surgery. In other cases, it can be a beneficial adjunct therapy before and after surgery to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.
Most vision therapy performed in the United States is prescribed and monitored by an optometrist. For this reason, it is also called optometric vision therapy. Optometrists who specialize in vision therapy — especially those who also specialize in children's vision and vision development — may call themselves pediatric optometrists, behavioral optometrists or developmental optometrists.
You've probably heard the old adage, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." But recent research in the field of neurology suggests that when it comes to the human brain, that's not true. It just may take a little more time and effort. Studies show that the human brain has a significant amount of neuroplasticity — the ability to change its structure and function in response to external stimuli. And these neurological changes in the brain, once thought to occur only during early childhood, have been demonstrated to occur in adults as well. In one study, for example, experienced adult typists who underwent long-term training to improve their keyboarding skills demonstrated increases in gray matter volume in their brains, suggesting that learning affects not only function, but also brain structure. Recent findings about neuroplasticity appear to confirm what many vision therapy experts have been saying for years: properly devised and administered programs of VT can cause neurological changes that can correct vision problems and improve visual performance. Some experts say certain anomalies associated with vision development, visual perception or vision function may be affected by neuroplasticity. If this is true, it's likely these same vision problems may be successfully treated with vision therapy.
Amblyopia. Also called "lazy eye," amblyopia is a vision development problem where an eye fails to attain normal visual acuity, usually due to strabismus or other problems of eye teaming.
Strabismus. The success of vision therapy for strabismus depends on the direction, magnitude and frequency of the eye turn. VT has been proven effective for treating an intermittent form of strabismus called convergence insufficiency, which is an inability to keep the eyes properly aligned when reading despite good eye alignment when looking at distant objects.
Other binocular vision problems. Subtle eye alignment problems called phorias that may not produce a visible eye turn but still can cause eye strain and eye fatigue when reading also can be minimized or corrected with vision therapy.
Eye movement disorders. Studies have shown vision therapy can improve the accuracy of eye movements used during reading and other close-up work.
Accommodative (focusing) disorders. Other research shows near-far focusing skills can be improved with vision training.
Other problems. Other vision problems for which vision therapy may be effective include visual-perceptual disorders, vision problems associated with developmental disabilities and vision problems associated with acquired brain injury (such as from a stroke).