U research finds eye drops effective in treating lazy eye

Amy Hackbarth

Talking with freshman Adam Fogolin, you wouldn’t know he has ambylopia, or lazy eye.

“Most people don’t recognize it unless they talk to me face to face,” he said.

But when Fogolin speaks with someone less than a foot away from him, his eye wanders slightly from its target – the lingering effect of a problem he’s had for 12 years. At age six, Fogolin refused treatment because he didn’t want to wear an eye patch his classmates might mock.

Now there’s another form of treatment available. Atropine eye drops can be used instead of eye patches to treat amblyopia, according to the results of a nationwide study published Wednesday.

“Now patients who may not have liked the patches can have an option that is just as good,” said Dr. Gail Summers, an ophthalmologist and professor at the University Medical School who worked on the study.

In the study, ophthalmologists worked to find an alternative treatment for amblyopia, a problem that impairs at least 3 percent of children in the United States. Amblyopia occurs when the brain ignores an eye. While the lazy eye can still see, vision is cloudy and undirected.

To correct the problem, Summers said, the brain must be forced to recognize the eye. Eye patches, worn for several hours a day over the unaffected eye, force the affected eye to focus on longer and shorter distances.

Atropine drops, similar to the drops administered at the optometrist, blur vision. When given once daily, the drops require the eye to work harder at shorter distances.

After studying more than 400 children who wore eye patches or received eye drops for six months, ophthalmologists found an approximate 75 percent improvement rate in both groups.

While both are equally effective, each treatment has side effects, Summers said. Atropine drops, for instance, can sting and make eyes sensitive to light. Eye patches, on the other hand, can be uncomfortable in warm weather and are sometimes embarrassing for children to wear, Summers said.

Dillon Fahning, however, said he doesn’t mind wearing an eye patch. Since diagnosed with amblyopia two years ago, the six-year-old has worn eye patches to correct the problem.

“It’s just a routine he is used to,” said Jean Fahning, Dillon’s mother. “He doesn’t question it at all.”

Ophthalmologists gave Fahning an eye patch during the study, a move that made his mother happy.

“I know the drops tend to sting eyes,” she said. “And there are very few things he complains about, but he hates getting drops in his eyes.”

Fahning wore an eye patch for six hours per day, gradually decreasing the time until he didn’t have to wear the patch at all.

Although her son sometimes complained about the patch during hot summer days, Jean Fahning said she is glad they used the patch to treat his ambylopia.

“I think it helped too that there was a visible sense of why he couldn’t see,” she said. “If we had used the drops, it probably would have been frustrating for him.”

Still, Summers said, the drops are not meant to replace patch use. Instead, she sees it as an alternative form of treatment.

“In the United States, the primary method of treating this is with patching,” she said. “Now there is something else for people who don’t want to use that.”