The Importance of Getting Your Kids’ Vision Checked
A clear-eyed view on detecting vision problems in kids and when to schedule vision screenings.
Throughout their young lives, kids’ bodies change at a practically dizzying rate – and their eyes aren’t necessarily exceptions. And yet, while most parents know their children should have an annual checkup with their doctor, their eye health doesn’t always get the same attention. In fact, only 50 percent of parents in the U.S. take their kids for annual eye exams, according to a recent survey of 1,000 parents by YouGov and VSP Vision Care. Some parents believe the vision screenings their children get at the pediatrician’s office or at school are sufficient – and often they are when kids pass with flying colors. But in some cases, those screenings aren’t enough, experts say.
For one thing, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently updated its recommendation on screening for amblyopia (or, lazy eye ), one of the most significant causes of vision abnormalities in kids. The latest recommendation is that children have at least one vision screening between the ages of 3 and 5 to detect amblyopia and its risk factors.
With school-age kids, some parents believe they don’t need to schedule an exam with an ophthalmologist or optometrist unless their child complains of vision abnormalities. But remember: “Before children are diagnosed with a vision problem, they may think the way they see is normal – they don’t know the difference between clear vision and the way they see things,” says Dr. Steven Brooks, chief of pediatric ophthalmology at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. This means it’s a mistake to rely exclusively on a child’s complaints of vision problems when determining whether to take him or her for an examination. Kids may also squint to make out letters they couldn’t otherwise see on a vision-screening test (such as an eye chart viewed 10 to 20 feet away), which can allow them to meet the threshold for a passing mark when their vision is actually somewhat impaired, Brooks adds.
At any age, it’s important to be alert to red flags that could signal your child is having vision problems. These include frequent squinting or eye rubbing, moving closer and closer to things (like the TV or computer screen) to see them clearly, closing one eye to read, holding a book unusually close or reporting recurring bouts of blurry vision. In addition, “teachers might report a fidgetiness or inability to maintain attention, which is natural if you’re having difficulty seeing the board at the front of the classroom,” says Dr. Ming Wang, director of the Wang Vision 3D Cataract and LASIK Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
These changes can emerge at any age, but “a lot of kids who are destined to wear glasses don’t show signs until they’re 7, 8 or 9,” Brooks says. Whether this is because of developmental changes in the eyes, based on the child’s genetic predisposition or other factors, the onset of vision problems “tends to follow the same patterns in families,” Brooks adds. So if one parent suddenly had trouble seeing the classroom chalkboard in third grade, you’re on notice that your kids could follow suit around the same time.
Keep in mind: These changes can occur out of the blue and fairly quickly, even from one annual vision screening to another. “It’s like their shoe size – it can stay the same for a year then change two sizes in three months,” says Mary Anne Murphy, an optometrist in Denver. “These little bodies are growing and changing, and their eyes can change just as frequently.” It’s important to be alert to these changes because poor vision can affect your child’s school performance, ability to learn and play sports and engage in other activities of daily life. “Girls seems to be more perceptive about vision changes and more vocal about them at an earlier age,” Murphy says.
If your child does poorly on a vision screening test or you notice red flags that could point to worrisome changes, it’s time to schedule a comprehensive exam with an ophthalmologist or optometrist. This typically includes tests of distance and near vision, binocular vision (which allows the eyes to coordinate properly) and depth perception; an eye muscle alignment test; and a dilated physical examination of the eyes (to view the retina and optic nerve, in particular). Besides detecting nearsightedness (or, myopia), farsightedness (or, hyperopia) or astigmatism (a common imperfection in the curvature of the cornea), together these examinations can be used to diagnose strabismus (misalignment of the eyes) or amblyopia, Wang notes. Once the vision problem is properly diagnosed, it can be corrected with prescription glasses, vision therapy or in some cases surgery.
After that, your child’s eye doctor will determine how often followup examinations are warranted, but in general kids who wear glasses should have comprehensive vision examinations at least annually. The good news is: “Once kids know what it’s like to see clearly and normally,” Brooks says, “they’re usually pretty good at telling you when things get blurry.” That helps take the guesswork out of the equation for parents.
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Source: US Health News