Understanding and Addressing Refractive Errors for Better Vision

What are refractive errors?

Refractive errors make it difficult to see clearly, as they occur when the shape of your eye prevents light from focusing correctly on your retina—a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of your eye. They represent the most common vision problem, affecting over 150 million Americans. However, many are unaware they could improve their vision, highlighting the importance of regular eye exams.

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What types of refractive errors exist?

There are four common types of refractive errors:

  1. Nearsightedness (Myopia) causes far-away objects to appear blurry. Symptoms include squinting of eyes to focus on a subject or object, eye strain, and excessive blinking.
  2. Farsightedness (Hyperopia) causes nearby objects to appear blurry. Symptoms include difficulty in activities, such as reading or stitching, and persistent headaches.
  3. Astigmatism can cause far-away and nearby objects to appear blurry or distorted. Eyestrain headaches, or uncomfortable and tired eyes are common symptoms.
  4. Presbyopia makes it challenging for middle-aged and older adults to see things up close - for example, when embroidering. It can cause eye strain or headaches.
Refractive error

What causes refractive errors?

Various factors contribute to refractive errors, including the length of the eyeball—whether it elongates or shortens. The shape of the cornea, the transparent outer layer of the eye, also plays a significant role in causing these errors. Additionally, the aging process of the lens, an inner component responsible for maintaining clarity and aiding in focusing, contributes to the development of refractive errors.

Managing refractive errors?

Your eye doctor actively determines your refractive error using a test called refraction. This is done with a computerized instrument (automated refraction) or a phoropter for manual refraction, where one lens is shown at a time.

Usually, the doctor's staff performs an automated refraction, and the eye doctor then refines and verifies the results manually. The refraction identifies multiple refractive errors contributing to blurred vision, like nearsightedness and astigmatism. Using the refraction results, your eye doctor prescribes eyeglasses. However, refraction alone isn't enough for a contact lens prescription, and a fitting is needed. Eyeglasses and contact lenses are made with precise curves to correct refractive errors and focus light on the retina.

A specialized ophthalmologist can perform vision correction surgeries - for example, laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK). LASIK changes the cornea's shape to bring light to a more accurate focus on the retina. Your doctor will refer you to this procedure if they feel it is the best treatment for you.

If you experience any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your optometrist. Your eye doctor can effectively manage refractive errors, eliminating the need for ongoing discomfort. Detecting vision problems early helps prevent serious issues in the future.