How Effective Is Vision Therapy for Adults?

Having 20/20 vision, which is the benchmark for perfectly clear, sharp vision, is often equated with eye health. However, visual acuity is just one aspect of proper eye function. Other essential visual skills are learned. In the past, it was widely accepted that if learned aspects of vision were neglected in childhood, they could not be addressed later. However, current research suggests visual skills can be improved even into adulthood. If you’re an adult patient looking to improve visual skills or address vision concerns, vision therapy can be part of an effective treatment plan.

woman enlarging eyes with magnifying glass

The basics: how vision works

Humans have binocular vision. Binocular means “having two eyes.” Binocular vision is learned, and when it’s properly functioning, our eyes face the same direction, joining information from the right and left eye to perceive a single object. A binocular vision disorder means the eyes are not working together, which can impact our ability to do things like focus on an object close to our face or track a line of text on a page. Other aspects of learned vision allow us to catch a ball or remember what we have seen. If visual abilities like these are underdeveloped or dysfunctional, there can be serious repercussions for a person’s vision, eye health, and general wellbeing. 

What is vision therapy?

Vision therapy is an individualized, optometrist-supervised program of eye exercises completed in your eye doctor’s office and at home. It can help a patient who is experiencing vision problems develop comfortable, efficient, accurate vision. Vision therapy is not about building eye muscles—vision therapy programs help a patient retrain the learned aspects of vision to improve the communication and coordination between the eyes and the brain. 

woman at the eye doctor's office

Why an adult might need vision therapy

The visual conditions treated through vision therapy have different causes in adults. They may be due to unaddressed vision issues a patient had as a child, which have worsened over the years. To successfully study or play sports as children, patients may have developed tactics to overcome visual difficulties, which can lead to new visual problems or exacerbate existing ones. 

Sometimes a vision disorder won’t develop until adulthood, like a lazy eye caused by cataracts. In other cases, visual symptoms may develop after a brain injury or stroke—the leading cause of strabismus in adults. Vision problems may also result from the progression of a thyroid disease or eye disease, like glaucoma or macular degeneration. For older patients, vision therapy can be an important part of their treatment plan to improve the visual symptoms associated with these conditions.

Visual conditions that can benefit from therapy

Vision therapy can improve a host of vision problems, including learning-related vision problems, visual perceptual dysfunction, oculomotor dysfunction (eye tracking issues), double vision, accommodation dysfunction (eye focusing problems), and more. Strabismus and amblyopia are two vision problems that vision therapy can address. They are commonly associated with children, but can also affect adults. 

Strabismus (eye turn)

It is estimated that 4% of adults will experience strabismus, which occurs when the eyes do not move as a pair due to abnormal neuromuscular control of eye movement. One eye may drift in, out, up, or down. Strabismus is often inherited and is associated with untreated refractive errors, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, graves’ disease, stroke, and brain injuries, like concussions.

Amblyopia (lazy eye)

Amblyopia, or lazy eye, occurs when one eye becomes weaker than the other, causing the brain to ignore the weaker eye. It is commonly caused by other problems, including untreated refractive errors and strabismus. Cataracts, astigmatism, or a scar on the cornea can also lead to lazy eye. Risk factors include family history of vision problems and developmental disabilities.

closeup of woman with eye measuring instruments

What to expect in an adult vision therapy program 

Vision therapy involves the use of special tools, including therapeutic lenses, prisms, filters, occluders/eye patches, and balance boards—all of which are designed for training specific eye abilities.

Eye skills trained in vision therapy

Visual devices are employed in conjunction with eye exercises with the goal of training specific abilities involving eye-eye and eye-brain communication. These can include:

  • Accommodation: the eye’s ability to continuously change focus between near and far (flexibility) and to maintain focus for extended close vision tasks (endurance)
  • Saccades: fast simultaneous eye movements between two focus points, an aspect of vision essential for reading a sentence on a page 
  • Pursuits: smooth eye movements between focus points, which is important in sports vision training and moving between paragraphs
  • Convergence: the ability for the two eyes to turn in towards the nose to focus on a near object, which is essential for work in school or an office
  • Visual-motor abilities: the ability to move through space guided by what we see 
  • Depth perception: the ability to discern near versus far objects
  • Peripheral vision: the ability to see surrounding objects without focusing on them 
closeup of eyes at the optometrist

Adult vision therapy eye health outcomes

Given its past focus on the treatment of children, a potential patient may wonder: is vision therapy effective in treating adults? Yes! In fact, one advantage an older patient may experience when they enter a vision therapy treatment program is their own motivation. Any vision therapy program requires dedication to be effective, and adults are often self-motivated to improve their visual skills. When combined with the right contact lenses, glasses, other treatment, and sometimes surgery, vision therapy can support management of a problem and can improve overall vision for adults. 

Neuroplasticity

The effectiveness of vision therapy for an older patient is largely due to neuroplasticity, which refers to the ability of neural networks in the brain to grow, change, and reorganize in response to our experiences. This is the process by which the brain develops when we are children. Research conducted over the past few decades suggests that the brains of adults remain similarly flexible and responsive. When it comes to vision and vision problems, this means adults can also benefit from vision therapy thanks to the continued plasticity of neural networks involved in vision and certain visual abilities.

Perceptual learning

In addition to research on neuroplasticity in adults and its implications for the treatment of vision disorders, studies also suggests that vision therapy can be effective for older patients based on the concept of perceptual learning. In vision therapy, this means that repeatedly training a challenging visual task can lead to lasting improvements in eye function and vision over time. There is growing evidence that it is possible to restore several aspects of eye function in older patients with lazy eye through perceptual learning. 

happy family with glasses

Additional benefits of therapy

The benefits of vision therapy for adults extend well beyond improved vision. Conditions like strabismus and lazy eye can lead to self-consciousness and low self-esteem, negatively impacting quality of life. While improving vision through vision therapy isn’t primarily about aesthetics, an adult’s boost in confidence thanks to proper eye function can be life changing. 

When to seek treatment as an adult

Contact your doctor’s office for a full exam of your vision if you are experiencing bothersome symptoms or notice any sudden vision changes. Eye strain, fatigue, headaches, double vision, blurry vision, persistent bumping into things—all can be signs of vision problems that may benefit from vision therapy. Onset of eye turn in adults, especially if sudden and in conjunction with double vision, can also be a sign of a serious neurological disorder or cancer, making it even more important to contact your doctor early.

woman highlighting beautiful eyes with a heart

Where to find a vision therapy eye doctor

If you’re interested in vision therapy, look for an eye doctor who has experience in developmental optometry, a branch of optometry devoted to the learned aspects of vision. If your doctor mainly treats children, don’t worry. The techniques and tools a vision therapy eye doctor uses are the same to effectively treat adults.

How beyond vision center can help

Vision therapy is integral component of the eye care services offered at Beyond Vision Center. Contact our office today to learn more. Age is just a number, and you’re never too old to make a change for the better. The same is true of your vision and eye health.