What is amblyopia like?


My left eye is amblyopic.  Amblyopia is a dimness of vision, especially when occurring in one eye without apparent physical defect or disease. Also called lazy eye. Origin: New Latin amblyōpia, from Greek ambluōpiā, from ambluōpos, dim-sighted : amblus, dim The other important fact about amblyopia is that the vision the eye is capable of is pretty cruddy, even when wearing glasses.  No lens can correct it to ‘normal’.

So what does it feel like?  What does the world look like, when I view it with my amblyopic left eye?

I’ve been considering these questions for a few months, now that I better understand my own two eyes and their abilities.  For most of my life, I have thought of my left eye as “weak”, and I thought the therapeutic eye-patching and clonky prism glasses I wore as a child had prevented this condition. The other reason I had never thought about “me + amblyopia” is because my brain has been dutifully suppressing the low-quality data coming from my amblyopic eye (a very chicken-or-the-egg type of mind game: did my eye become amblyopic because my brain ignored the images but my brain ignores the images because my eye is amblyopic?)  With vision therapy, one of the primary goals is to eliminate the suppression of my left eye, so I’ve been able to pay close attention to my amblyopic eye’s abilities the past few months.

First off, I can show you what it is not like for me:

prevent blindness.org's amblyopia example

The world looks mostly normal, to me, but less crisp…the example below does a good job.  When I view it with my ‘good’ eye, I can see a crisper, more detailed image on the right.  If I look with my amblyopic eye, both images look the same.  All the little glints on the teeth disappear.

my amblyopic eye on the left, normal on the right

When I’m using just my ambloypic eye, it feels almost like I’m holding my breath: my right eye wants to take over!!  It is the most uncomfortable sensation.  There is a sense of urgency, like an itch you have to scratch; I have to open my other eye.

it does NOT blur like this for me (compare 20/100 with 20/20 vision)

When I perform the standard “read the letters on the eye chart” routine with my left eye, it’s really difficult.  I use my honed letter-guessing skills, because “reading” the eye chart is so difficult.  My amblyopic eye sees 20/100 uncorrected, and it gets as good as about 20/30 with glasses (my good eye corrects to 20/20 with glasses.)

It’s not just that it’s blurry–because it doesn’t look as uniformly blurry as the eye chart example I have here.  When I try to read the chart with my left eye, it’s like I’m reading letters in another dimension.  The letters seem so far away, ghostly, and unclear.

At home, if I try to read a book with my amblyopic eye, it is very difficult to track the words.  It looks wavy like the image here, but the odd thing is my left eye can’t take in the WHOLE page, just one word at a time.  I feel like I can’t quite comprehend the words I am reading, and my eye can only keep track of one word at a time–I can’t see the whole half of the sentence, and some long words like ‘sentence’ are read by that eye as two chunks, which makes reading slower and requires so much attention.  It reminds me of when I was first learning German as a second language, and the fluency and speed and ease were not there, even though the letters are the same and the text is ‘easy’.  It’s hard.  And I swear, my comprehension is not as good when I read with my amblyopic eye.

courtesy the visionehelp blog

Another problem amblyopes have is with “crowding“–when there are lots of letters around, it’s hard to see each letter sometimes.  It is easier for me to read a word I know because the letters in the word are within the context of the word.  But guessing letters on an eye chart is hard, and the first and last letters in the row are easiest.

On a Hart chart like this, the letters in the middle are quite challenging to see–they blur and morph into each other and are difficult to pick out, like trying to count grains of rice in a pile on the floor while standing up…you loose your place.

peg-leg optional

I’ve been thinking about how else to convey amblyopia, so here is an activity you can do to simulate my amblyopia symptoms:  channel your inner pirate!  Wear a patch (sadly, I bet you don’t actually own a patch, so you can improvise–shut an eye, use your hand, etc) on one eye in a normally-lit space for 2-5 minutes or so.  Then, enter a dark space.  Your covered eye will have adjusted to the dark, so when both eyes are open, your covered eye will easily see the environment but your previously uncovered eye will take a bit to adjust to the dark.  Your covered eye will have the visual advantage: that’s your ‘good’ eye! and your other eye is your ‘bad’ amblyopic eye…boo!

It’s pirate-style, because pirates kept one eye covered so they could go below decks and instantly see in the dark interior space of the ship.

In her book Fixing My Gaze, on page 153 Sue Barry writes

Evidence lurking in the scientific literature for at least the last half century indicates that amblyopia can be treated into adulthood.  As early as 1957…a study…showed dramatic improvements in adult amblyopes after a four-week period of patching combined with vision therapy.  In a [different] 1977 study…improvements in eyesight were found for all ages.  Sadly these and other studies continue to be overlooked.  Many doctors still believe that amblyopia can be treated only in young children.

During my 2007 visit to the University of Ophthalmology department for a routine eye exam, my doctor indicated that I had “stable amblyopia.”  The end.  That University offers nothing to treat or improve my amblyopia.  Indeed, the three physicians I’ve seen at the U of MN must all believe that adult amblyopia is hopeless…and I guess I’ve decided that I’m not interested in being a patient in a practice that does not bother to explore all literature and studies on effective amblyopia treatments.  Indeed, as an informed healthcare consumer, I’m choosing treatment option that will improve my quality of life:

Dr. Lester, an…amblyope since early childhood [learned] how to use her long-neglected amblyopic left eye as an equal partner with her right…”Suddenly, the world sparkled.  I felt an unaccountable joy explode.” …Her friends say that Dr. Lester is now a changed person, more curious and eager for new adventure.  p152 Fixing My Gaze

As a young child, the word ‘amblyopia’ reminded me of the word “ambulance”–a scary emergency–and my father infused a bit of danger and worry into amblyopia as well, even though he was calmly explaining why I had to wear an eyepatch.  I knew that “amblyopia can lead to blindness.”  I wore all those hideous tan patches as a kid, yet here I am, Strabby the Amblyope.  Did the failure of my treatment regimen ever make it into a study?  I sure hope it did.

It is liberating and exciting to know my amblyopia can be diminished and my ‘bad’ eye’s vision can improve…I’m already noticing changes, which inspired me to crank out this blog entry before my amblyopic eye gets any better!

16 comments on “What is amblyopia like?

  1. Great description! I agree with you totally – it doesn’t look like those blurry pictures that you usually see, it DOES feel like reading in another dimension, and your sparkly teeth picture is completely accurate.

    One activity that I’ve been doing a lot of lately is word searches with my amblyopic eye. My vision therapist has a book of progressively smaller word searches, and I’ve been searchin’ away. They’re really great, and they are printed in red too. That way I can wear red/green glasses (if I want), and only my left eye can see the words. My left eye has to lead and my right eye has to follow – something totally unnatural to me!

  2. Huh. I thought that the term “lazy eye” referred to Strabismus. I am surprised to see that it actually refers to Amblyopia.

    • yes–it seems weird, and it seems like the ‘laziness’ should describe the ‘wonkiness’ of a strabismic eye.

      Dr. Press at the VisionHelp blog clarifies in a recent post:

      “amblyopia, a term with the Greek derivation of “amblys” meaning dull or dim, and “ops” meaning eye. This gives rise to the poorly termed vernacular of amblyopia as “lazy eye”….Yet the term “lazy eye” remains prominent in popular culture even as much as it is misunderstood and misapplied.”

      so practically *everyone* is confused–not just you. (and anyway, now you are no longer confused.)

  3. I really appreciate your latest post! It’s amazing how many people don’t know about amblyopia. I feel like I’m constantly explaining it! I have 20/200 vision in my left amblyopic eye. I’m 52 years old and 5 months into vision therapy. I have already seen significant changes. I had surgery when I was three and what they called “eye exercises” when I was in elementary school in the early 60’s. I remember those awful patches and dilation of my “good” eye. Somewhere along the line, I was sent home to be an esotropic amblyope without binocular vision. I was going to UCLA Medical Center. I’ve inquired over the years about any possibilities or breakthroughs concerning my vision and never heard an encouraging word… until Sue Barry came along!

    I’m a long way from doing word searches unless the words were billboard size!


    • hi Kari! I’m glad you like the post–before I started blogging, I was googling every word combination I could think of to find an amblyope’s personal description of amblyopia…and I agree, it is very ‘secret’ and yet so many people must have some form of amblyopia, because so many people have some form of strabismus (like 5% of the population, I have read.)

      I’m excited to ‘meet’ you and that is great you are pursuing vision therapy!

      I just read an interesting amblyopia post at the VisionHelp blog that you might like:


      cheers to you, too!

  4. Great explanation and thanks for spreading the word on how to treat the condition.

  5. Nice to meet you, too! I’ve been reading the visionhelp blog of late and of course anything else I can get my “eyes” on related to the topic. I do my vision therapy at one of the vision help offices (Dr. Appelbaum in Bethesda, MD). They are awesome. I have my 6 month evaluation tomorrow so hopefully, I will have something interesting to report!


  6. Wow – thanks for this. My son was just diagnosed with amblyopia of his right eye (he doesn’t have strabismus, but anisometropic amblyopia).

  7. Thanks for the article. Do you find that you walk or bump into things on your left side?

  8. This is a wonderful article and an apt description of what amblyopia seems like. Thank you Sally.
    I’ve had the so called ‘Lazy eye’ diagnosed a few months back, and the doc’s say there is no remedy; Its just how it is and I have to deal with it.

    I’m 18 now and in the past few years I’ve learned to use my right eye in a way that hides the abnormality in my left. I’m quite normal to the ordinary world thanks to the 6/6 vision in my right eye. I don’t wear glasses but I do have a problem in sighting words which are far away with both my eyes open. Hope some cure comes along the way but till then I have no worries.

  9. Thanks for sharing the experience. My son’s right eye is “lazy eye”. He had eye surgery when he was 7 yrs old- just to correct the position of the pupil. But vision remains abnormal. I had a hard time for his eye patch therapy because he can hardly read anything and he thought its useless. But i forced him. Ten years later, he told me he can see few letters already but in larger size only. When i read this blog I learned that there is still chance for another eye patch therapy even if you are adult. Now I can tell my son he can continue the therapy. I read also in one article that playing the game TETRIS can also help eye coordination for amblyopic eye? What do you say?

  10. I found this article when doing a search for “what does the world look like with amblyopia.” I am 75, perhaps the oldest of those replying here. I was born in 1939 and no one then knew about covering the good eye and forcing the amblyopic eye to work. When I learned that I was probably amblyopic, conventional wisdom was that it was too late to do any correction of the eye. Ten years ago I had cataract surgery on both eyes with lens plants. I was so hoping that I would not have a restriction on my driving, but I still have that on my license. Oh well, I am blessed. The glasses I now wear are the thinnest I have worn in my lifetime! Heretofore my left lens was very thick. Now, you cannot tell one eye is afflicted. By the way, I never thought of it as a disability. Christmas trees, lighted, took on a beauty no one else could see!!

  11. Hi,
    I am 30 years old and have never really found a decent way to describe having amblyopia to others. For me my left eye is the affected and your description hits the nail on the head:

    ‘it is very difficult to track the words. It looks wavy like the image….my left eye can’t take in the WHOLE page, just one word at a time…..I can’t quite comprehend the words I am reading…my eye can only keep track of one word at a time–I can’t see the whole half of the sentence, and some long words like ‘sentence’ are read by that eye as two chunks, which makes reading slower and requires so much attention’

    Thanks for the pirate-stylie example too, gonna try that on the wife!
    Many thanks!

  12. I have amblyopia in my right eye. I’m in my 40’s, and it was corrected with the patch when I was about 6yo. I started having double vision, was bumping into everything on my right side especially in areas I was not familiar with, also fall down stairs and going up stairs lol Also, for some reason I would not “See” (more like my brain didn’t register what my eye was seeing) things on my right side, so frustrating!!! So my amblyopia had returned.
    I had asked my eye doctor if the patch would help, ” Not at your age” he said. But I’m doing it anyway. I could only handle 10 minutes of wearing the patch while playing intense video game before getting a bad headache. The next day 20 mins, the 3rd day half an hour. Each day progressing longer for up to 2hrs per day, just playing intense games. I am due for an updated eye exam, I will not inform my eye doctor, until I see him in another 6 months. If he sees an improvement, I will tell him what i’ve been doing.
    After i remove the patch when in a bright lit area, and move to a dimly lit area, all I see in my amblyopic eye is a dark foggy ,what looks like a thick film over my eye, this stays for about 30 mins or so after removing the patch.
    My eye only turns slightly outwards when i’m tired.

  13. Well, let me try to explain what it is like for me, now that I have shaken of the thought of how lucky the writer of the article is. 🙂 My right eye is amblyopic and is capable only of peripheral vision. When I close my good eye, my brain is still focused completely on the darkness caused by the left eye-lid closure. It can not escape it and engage the right eye in anything but peripheral vision. All i see is the darkness that my right eye can not disperse. So my brain focuses on the big blind spot of the closed good eye, allowing me to make out only objects and people close by. I can not read anything, no matter how big, i can not focus on anything. I see a book, for example, or a computer keyboard, but i can not read the title, or make out the key letters, regardless of how close i get and how hard i try. The focus is on the darkness. I feel that the right eye would be capable of good vision, if only my brain could somehow switch its attention to it. If i put, say, a green fluorescent piece of paper right in front of my left eye, my brain will be completely focused on looking at the green fluorescent colour, allowing my right eye to see what i have described already. It is difficult to explain, I hope you got the idea, because no image can show what it is like… There is no fuzziness or blurriness. There is the dark patch of the clossed good eye and focus on it. Try closing both eyes and “seeing the darkness”. Now, open your left eye. Your brain disregards the darkness to the right side and sees the world. It works for you vice versa as well. When I close both my eyes, and open my left eye, my brain disregards the dsrkness on the right side and sees the world. BUT, when i close my eyes and open my right eye, my brain does not disregard the darkness. It still looks at it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s