Wait, Why Don’t Glasses Make Your Eyes Weaker Over Time?Reading Time: 5 minutes
An Internet Myth About Glasses Has Been Touted by Some Pretty Smart People, It has to do with how vision works., Why glasses work: Corrective lenses don’t make your vision weaker over time.
This is Explainer, a column that answers questions we all have (or should have).
As someone who depends on corrective lenses, it sometimes strikes me how thin the line is between my life and a dangerous one. If I got lost in the woods or stumbled into a Hunger Games situation, I figure I’d have a day or two before my contacts dried up, and I wandered off a cliff or fell victim to an attack that my nearsightedness simply did not see coming. It’s the stuff of horror movies. No, really, they’ve actually made horror movies about it.
According to online wellness influencer Samantha Lotus, though, all I would need is some eye exercises and verbal affirmations, and I could wave bye-bye to my glasses. Lotus went viral recently after she claimed that people ‘do not need glasses.’ Instead, per a TikTokker who goes by @mallorysthoughts who attended Lotus’ $11 master class on healing vision, Lotus suggested ‘eye yoga’ and affirmations like ‘I SEE WITH LOVE AND JOY.’ She also, per Mallory, recommended ‘rubbing essential oils around the eyes,’ which makes more sense when you learn she’s a rep for doTerra, a company that sells essential oils. (Lotus, for her part, told Rolling Stone that she is ‘reviewing the presentation, sources and studies cited to ensure the materials presented are compliant and safe.’)
But when it comes to the idea that you can self-care your way out of needing glasses, ‘there’s zero evidence that any of that works,’ ophthalmologist Christopher Starr of Weill Cornell in New York emphasized to me. ‘Especially not the oils.’
While Lotus’ claims were swiftly shut down by TikTok doctors, her fearmongering campaign against Big Optometry stems from a common question that pops up in optometrists’ offices around the world, which is: Can glasses or contact lenses, as useful as they are, make eyesight worse in the long run?
A significant portion of the global population believes so. Last year in Saudi Arabia, 22 percent of surveyed young adults said that glasses cause harm to eyesight. That number was 23 percent among parents surveyed in India, and as high as 64 percent among undergraduates in Nigeria. In rural China, focus groups of children, parents, and teachers all expressed concerns that wearing glasses could cause eye problems to progress faster. While studies suggest lower percentages in the United States, it’s clear that the belief proliferates here, too.
One of the most devout anti-glasses campaigners was American. Long before Samantha Lotus, there was William Horatio Bates, an ophthalmologist at the turn of the 20th century who developed the so-called Bates method for improving vision. He later wrote about the method —which included removing your glasses, imagining the color black, and, horrifyingly, looking at the sun—in his 1920 self-published book Perfect Sight Without Glasses.
The concept of ‘natural vision improvement’ has stuck around for decades, championed by occasional evangelists—which included writer Aldous Huxley—and fringe organizations. Set in that context, it’s perhaps not so crazy that online influencers like Lotus without any medical background can successfully sell a natural vision healing course to curious consumers.
The premise behind Bates’ doctrine is that vision problems like nearsightedness are caused by problems with the muscles around the eye and that a person can cure their vision problems by reducing ‘mental strain.’ If you think of vision problems as a muscle problem, the notion might make some sense. After all, don’t your muscles atrophy in the leg that wears a cast?
But take a look at the anatomy of the eye, and the proof is in the pudding: ‘There’s just no good, clear scientific mechanism why the eyes would deteriorate faster,’ says Starr, if you’re wearing glasses versus not.
The most common vision problems, which include nearsightedness and farsightedness, are related to refraction—that is, how light bends when it enters the eye. And that is determined (as scientists have known since before Bates’ time) by the shape of the eye. In the front of the eye is the cornea, the window where light enters (and where a contact lens would sit). In the back of the eye is the retina, which acts like the film of a camera; it processes the light and sends the signal to the brain. In between the cornea and the retina is the lens. The cornea and lens work together to guide light that comes into the eye onto the retina. It has to refract—bend—just so in order to produce a clear, sharp image.
If the eye is too long, or the curve of the cornea is too steep, the rays will focus in front of the retina; that’s what causes nearsightedness (or myopia). Too short or too flat, the rays will focus behind the retina, and you have farsightedness (hyperopia). Corrective lenses on the cornea (or in front of, in the case of glasses) help to bend the light so that it lands directly on your retina and you can see a clearer image.
‘That’s all that glasses do,’ says Starr. ‘They don’t weaken the eye, they don’t strengthen the eye, they don’t have any impact on eye health. They just purely focus the light so that you can see it clearly.’
Still, patients often come into Starr’s office with questions about when and how to wear glasses. For older adults, a common concern is that starting on reading glasses too soon will cause their eyes to get worse faster, or make them ‘dependent’ on glasses. But there’s no truth to that, says Starr. As we age, our lenses—between the retina and the cornea—stiffen and thicken, making it harder to focus light when seeing close-up. While wearing reading glasses helps correct blurry vision, it doesn’t affect the shape of the eye, so it won’t worsen (or improve) refractive problems over the long term.
It’s a different matter when it comes to kids, whose eyes are still growing. In fact, not wearing glasses—or wearing glasses that are too weak—can accelerate vision declines in kids with myopia. That’s because if a kid hasn’t fully corrected their vision, the eye will work to find a clearer image. The eyeball can’t shrink, but it can grow, says Bryce St. Clair, an optometrist at John Hopkins in Maryland. So it elongates, causing the light rays to fall in front of the retina and the myopia to progress.
Myopia cases have spiked in recent years; over 40 percent of Americans have myopia, up from 25 percent in the 1970s, and it’s projected that half of the globe will have myopia by 2050. Risk factors include too much close-up work and not enough sunlight—so the pandemic saw a rise in cases. Once a kid has myopia, the condition tends to be progressive. Current interventions to slow the progression include specialty pediatric contact lenses and FDA-approved eye drops containing atropine.
One very small point in favor of the glasses-skeptical here: Overcorrecting of vision is fairly common in kids, because children have extremely malleable inner eye muscles that compensate for vision issues (a process called accommodation) and make it hard to get an accurate prescription during eye exams. A prescription that is too strong will not accelerate vision declines, but it can cause headaches and other symptoms because those inner eye muscles are working harder than they have to. The fix here is pretty simple: return to the ophthalmologist’s chair for a ‘cycloplegic refraction,’ which temporarily paralyzes those inner eye muscles so you can get an accurate prescription. But the lesson in that case is not that you don’t need glasses—just that wearing the wrong prescription can lead to annoying symptoms.
There aren’t many studies that look at the impact of corrective lenses over time aside from research into myopia control. Part of that may be because a randomized control trial on the long-term effects of glasses would—in addition to not being necessary based on what we know about eyes—be a hard study to conduct. If some people in a trial couldn’t wear glasses, ‘half of them will be dead,’ jokes Starr. ‘Because they got in car accidents or didn’t see a car coming on the street and got run over.’ Much like if I got thrown glasses-less into the Hunger Games, where I would instantly die. But with the right prescription? I’m unstoppable.
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