One of the best parts of being a doctor is talking to patients and putting their minds at ease about concerns they have. It is always nice to turn their worry into a sigh of relief (I wish that was always the case). Many of the concerns brought up by patients are based on common myths about the eyes that have been propagated and repeated over the years. Here are the top 10 myths I hear about and hope to debunk once and for all. I wish everyone’s eye problems were this simple.
#10: “Reading in low light or with very small print will damage your eyes.” The eye is more like a camera than you think. Just as shooting a photograph in low light doesn’t damage your camera, the same holds true for your eye. The picture may be dim and you have to mentally focus more to figure out what you are seeing, but the eye doesn’t know or care if there is a lot of light or a little, it just adapts to give you the best possible picture. People read by candlelight for thousands of years and did just fine.
#9: “Wearing sunglasses indoors/at night will harm your eyes.” No, you’ll just look like you want to be cool and you may bump into the furniture.
#8: “If I wear my glasses all the time I’ll get dependent on them and my vision will be worse.” Once again, your eyes are very similar to a camera. They have a series of lenses in the front (the cornea and lens) and a sensor in the back with little pixels (the retina). Putting a different lens on your camera or adjusting the focus doesn’t hurt the camera, it just generates differently focused pictures. The same is true with glasses. Their only function is to better focus the light entering your eye on the retina. You want the best lens system you can get all the time so your pictures are always sharp and clear. Your body doesn’t know if the picture is sharp or not, only your brain can interpret this and it has no real capacity to permanently change the physical characteristics of your eyes. You paid a fortune for those fancy frames and lenses. Use them.
#7: “All eye surgery should somehow involve lasers, or it isn’t state of the art.” Marketing mavens love to extol the virtues of lasers because they sound so much more technologically advanced. I have had countless patients express disappointment that I won’t be using a laser to fix their eyelids, because laser surgery is always better. While a few eye surgeries depend on lasers (i.e. LASIK), most are done with the familiar scalpel, scissors and sutures most people associate with surgery. With respect to plastic surgery around the eye, lasers can be used to cut the skin, but so can a scalpel or electrocautery. There is no evidence that any of these devices has any better outcome. One thing lasers do have going for them is that they are much more expensive to operate and maintain than a scalpel, so you can feel good knowing that you paid more for something that is usually no better than the old standby.
#6: “They removed my eye from the socket, fixed it, and put it back in.” Don’t laugh, every eye doctor hears this at least monthly. I once tried to argue with the patient, but I was told he had also seen it in a movie (two witnesses). The eye is directly connected to the brain via the optic nerve. Removing the eye from the socket involves cutting the optic nerve and several muscle attachments. Once the optic nerve is severed it cannot regenerate and the eye is blinded. During surgery we use an eyelid speculum to hold the eyelids open, or a different approach is made through the eyelids or occasionally even through the skull. Every effort is made to keep the optic nerve safe and intact.
#5: “Kids will outgrow crossed eyes.” When a child develops crossing of the eyes (strabismus), an eye exam should be performed as soon as possible. Children have a very small window of time when they can develop binocular vision. This is where their eyes learn to work together to help produce a 3-dimensional image and allow for normal depth perception. Crossed eyes cannot work together and must be corrected. Often, all that is needed is corrective lenses. Sometimes patching or eye surgery is necessary. However, ignoring the problem will most likely lead to one eye losing its ability to achieve sharp vision and making 3-D vision impossible.
#4: “Sitting too close to the TV or computer will damage your eyes.” This myth is dying out, but you still hear it from time to time. Based on what you already know, you can see why this myth doesn’t hold water. Many people do notice that spending a lot of time watching television, reading or looking at the computer makes their eyes feel tired. When we use our eyes intently, we tend to blink less, allowing more time for our tears to evaporate. This leads to dry eye, which will make the eyes become blurred, burn and tear. Closing your eyes or blinking them more will feel good and this is interpreted as “tired eyes.” If this is a problem, try putting in some artificial tears a few minutes before starting to work at the computer and take occasional breaks. Focusing up close also requires muscular effort to bring your eyes inward. The eye muscles get tired after a while and may even ache. Taking break to look off in the distance for a few minutes will usually solve this problem.
#3: “Eating carrots (or some other random food) will make your eyesight better.” While many vitamins are important to the eyes, anyone with a normal diet gets plenty of them. A deficiency of vitamin A, which is plentiful in carrots, can affect your vision, but this is rare nowadays and it isn’t necessary to eat extra vitamin A to keep good vision. A balanced diet is good for you, worrying about one particular vitamin isn’t. (People diagnosed with macular degeneration in its early form can benefit from a select group of vitamins called the AREDS formula, named after the study that proved it, otherwise don’t waste your money).
#2: “Wearing contact lenses overnight is okay, my contact lenses are made to be worn that way.” This is a dangerous marketing ploy that contact lens manufacturers use to lure people into buying their lenses. I have seen plenty of nasty corneal infections, and nearly all involved contact lenses. When pressed, most patients will admit to wearing them while sleeping from time to time. While you might get away with wearing your lenses overnight for awhile, this habit will catch up with you and one day you’ll be in serious pain and in danger of a permanent corneal scar, loss of vision, or even loss of your eye. It can be that serious. Just take them out and sleep easier knowing you aren’t putting your sight in danger.
#1: “My kid isn’t smart because he can’t see,” or “bad vision can cause dyslexia.” Kids can adapt to almost anything, including very poor vision. This myth gets propagated by people selling all manner of eye exercises and vision enhancing devices for kids who are having trouble learning. In reality, most kids have some refractive error, usually far-sightedness, which they gradually outgrow as they mature. Most eyes go from far-sightedness to emmetropia (normal vision not needing glasses). Some kids go past emmetropia and become near-sighted, eventually needing glasses. Regardless of where you kid’s vision is at, he or she is very adept and compensating for any difficulty in seeing. Kids squint, hold text closer, or cheat off their friends when they can’t see the blackboard. They don’t start mixing up their numbers and letters and fail in school. Save yourself some money and hire a tutor or see a guidance counselor. That eye doctor that promises to cure dyslexia with eye exercises is only going to separate you from your money.
Honorable Mention: “‘Sexual activity’ or ‘masturbation’ will make you go blind.” If my kids ever ask, this is completely true. You don’t want to end up blind, do you?