Medically Reviewed by Angelique J. Pillar, M.D.
Table of Contents
Have you heard of eye exercises that treat astigmatism? If you struggle to see clearly, eye exercises are probably not a revelation.
Many individuals and companies run marketing campaigns claiming that these exercises can treat vision-related issues including astigmatism. However, some ophthalmologists believe differently,
With astigmatism, either the cornea or lens of your eye has an exaggerated curvature leading to poor focusing and consequently, blurred vision. Normally, the front part of the eye known as the cornea is spherical like a basketball.
But with astigmatism, the curvature is distorted resulting in a lens to cornea dimensional mismatch. While this incongruity is negligible in most people and does not cause any visual disturbances, it can be severe to warrant medical treatment in some instances.
More often, astigmatism coexists with other eye problems such as myopia (nearsightedness) or hyperopia (farsightedness).
Muscles Control Your Eye Movement
Very rarely do we keep our eyes perfectly still. We move our eyes from side to side as we read. We look up to see a plane flying through the sky. We look down in order to tie our shoelaces. Even while we’re sleeping, our eyes are moving.
All of that movement is controlled by six muscles that sit within the eye socket and attach to the eye, according to the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. Each time our eye moves, one of these muscles is pulling to make the movement happen. And each movement requires a tug on part of the eye.
In a healthy eye, that surface is round like a baseball, but people with astigmatism have an eye surface shaped more like a football. Some people with astigmatism have irregularities speckled throughout the eye. Their eyes may have an unusual shape in just one part of the eye.
As the American Academy of Ophthalmology points out, no one is quite sure why astigmatism develops in some people and not others. It is likely that heredity plays a role, so having parents with astigmatism makes it more likely that a child will have the same condition. But the gene that causes the disorder has not been identified and the risks haven’t been made clear.
It is this uncertainty that creates an opportunity for unusual solutions. Those who suggest that eye exercises help with astigmatism think that working with the muscles that control the eye will somehow also change the shape of the eye or fix their condition.
Eye Exercises Target Those Muscles
The American Academy of Ophthalmology reports that astigmatism is a dynamic process that can be influenced by all sorts of factors, including age, time of day, the way you hold your eyelids, and more. Throughout the day, the shape of the eye changes. This is a natural process and it happens to all people. But those who believe exercises work attempt to suggest that people can use exercises to counter these changes and keep the eye from shifting in shape.
Some of the most famous astigmatism eye exercises are known as Bates exercises. Introduced in the 1900s by William Horatio Bates, these exercises attempt to correct curvature defects by focusing the eye movements as well as blinking. In one such exercise, people are instructed to:
- Place the thumb 10 cm in front of the face, at the height of the nose.
- Move the thumb up toward the forehead.
- Move the thumb back down.
- Repeat this motion, moving the thumb up a smaller amount each time.
Theoretically, Bates’s exercises cause contraction and relaxation of the eye muscles. The relaxed muscles, therefore, relieve the tension on the eye and avert exaggeration of the optical curvature.
In a second type of exercise, highlighted by Mother Earth News in the 1980s, people are encouraged to place a palm over closed eyes and breathe deeply to force the muscles to relax in the darkness. This “palming” method does not involve pushing on the eye. Instead, people are encouraged to just cover the eyes gently while blocking out light.
There are multiple variations of these exercises. Some involve looking at printed diagrams, others involve looking at a color or a light, and some involve gentle movements, like swinging the arms. All of them are made to soothe tense muscles, and those who believe in them state that they can relieve and fix vision problems almost immediately.
Do the Eye Exercises Help with Astigmatism?
The absence of clear evidence on the cause(s) of the irregular curvature in astigmatism gives room for the development of unusual treatment solutions including eye exercises. The proponents of these exercises suggest that manipulating the muscles, which control the eye movements, will modify the shape of the cornea or lens to fix astigmatism.
Do Experts Recommend These Exercises?
As experts writing for Harvard Health Publishing point out, there are very few rigorous trials that have been conducted on the efficacy of eye exercises. In order to prove that these exercises work, researchers would need to split people into two groups, and give one set exercises and keep exercises from another. At the end of that study, there must be a clear benefit seen in those who did exercises compared to those who did not. Studies that show the exact opposite have been performed, and they keep doctors from recommending exercises for their patients.
In a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, researchers compared the results of 43 studies on the benefits of eye exercises in those with low vision. After comparing all of the results, researchers found no clear, scientific evidence that eye exercise could be helpful in treating eye issues such as myopia. These results suggest that eye exercises just do not have the benefits that their supporters claim.
In a second study, published in the International Journal of Therapies and Rehabilitation Research, researchers assessed the use of exercises in those with low near vision. People were split into two groups, and some had exercises while the others did not. The researchers found no differences among the two groups at the end of the study, showing that the exercises had no benefit. This is a clear study that seems to put the idea of exercise to rest as a treatment for vision problems.
Finally, a doctor writing for the American Academy of Ophthalmology tells a patient that exercises cannot correct vision problems. When asked if exercises work, his response was: “Wouldn’t that be great!”
It’s clear that exercises do not have the support of the medical community. And yet, they do get promoted as a solution on a regular basis.
Who Does Recommend Them?
While medical professionals do not recommend eye exercises as a solution for astigmatism, there are others who do. Most are drawing on a tradition stretching back hundreds of years.
As the website Quackwatch makes clear, people have been selling eye exercise solutions to people since 1917. They’ve made money on books, they’ve sold eye exercise charts, and in our modern era, they have made money on podcasts. As long as there is a group of people who want clear vision but no glasses and no surgery, this sales process is likely to continue.
What Else Can You Do?
If eye exercises do not work to clear up your astigmatism, are you doomed to spend the rest of your life with poor vision? Of course not. Contact lenses and glasses do a good job of helping people with astigmatism to see clearly. If you do not want to wear these devices every day, LASIK surgery could help to amend the shape of your eye and give you the sharp vision you have been hoping for.
At NVISION, we can explain your options to you and help you understand if surgery is the right choice for you. Contact us to get the conversation started.
- Anatomy of the Eye. (March 2017). American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.
- What Causes Astigmatism? (March 2015). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
- Physiology of Astigmatism. (January 2015). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
- Astigmatism Exercises. Bates Eye Exercises.
- Improve Your Eyesight Naturally With Eye Exercises. (July 1983). Mother Earth News.
- The Lowdown on Eye Exercises. (September 2003). Harvard Health Publishing.
- A Systematic Review of the Applicability and Efficacy of Eye Exercises. (March 2005). Journal of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.
- Effect of Eye Exercises on the Visual Acuity and Refractive Error of Myopics. (2017). International Journal of Therapies and Rehabilitation Research.
- Can I Improve Eye Vision Naturally Through Exercises So I Do Not Need to Wear Eyeglasses or Contact Lenses? (March 2014). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
- Eye-Related Quackery. (July 2018). Quackwatch.