Needles trump patches in treating kids' eye problem
December 13th, 2010
04:12 PM ET

Needles trump patches in treating kids' eye problem

Acupuncture is helping to improve vision in children with lazy eye, according to a study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology.

In the randomized trial, researchers compared the effectiveness of two hours of daily patching therapy with acupuncture for treating lazy eye in 88 children aged 7 to 12. All children had already worn glasses for at least 16 weeks. 43 of the children were randomly assigned to the acupuncture treatment group, receiving five treatments per week that targeted five needle insertion sites. 45 children in the patch group had their stronger eye patched for two hours per day and were instructed to do activities such as reading and typing, which helps to strengthen near vision in the weaker eye.

After 15 weeks of both therapies, vision clarity improved in more than 66 percent of the patch group and more than 75 percent of the acupuncture group. Lazy eye was declared resolved in 41.5 percent of the acupuncture group and in 16.7 percent of the patched eye group, according to the study.

“The findings from this report indicate that the treatment effect of acupuncture for [lazy eye] is equivalent to the treatment effect of patching,” the authors write in their conclusion. They also note that their study group included only patients with a specific type of lazy eye, and follow-up time was limited. They also note that acupuncture “is a very complicated system of therapy. Differences exist among acupuncturists, and there are divergent manipulation modes, stimulation parameters, treatment styles, and subjective sensations evoked by acupuncture stimulation.” They conclude that larger, multifaceted, multicenter studies are warranted to bolster their findings.

Acupuncture is a traditional part of traditional Chinese medicine, and has been used to treat eye disorders such as dry eye and vision problems, according to the study.  MRI images show that using acupuncture to stimulate vision acupoints shows activation in the brain. The authors cite a previous study that has shown acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating lazy eye.

Dr. Willie Y.W. Chen, is an Atlanta board-certified ophthalmologist who also includes acupuncture in his practice.  “I have been using acupuncture to treat certain eye conditions but only with success," in a few,  including eye and head pain. he says.

Chen agrees that long-term follow-up will provide more answers to whether the treatment works.  He also expressed concern regarding the age group of the patients noting that the acupuncture points are located in some sensitive areas.  "Can 7-12 year olds tolerate this treatment?”

Lazy eye, also called amblyopia, affects an estimated  .3 to 5 percent of people worldwide, according to the study. It occurs when one eye is weaker than the other and the vision signals from the weaker eye are improperly processed by the brain.  Amblyopia happens when the nerve pathway from one eye to the brain does not develop during childhood, according the National Institutes of Health (NIH).   This leads to the abnormal eye sends a blurred image or the wrong image to the brain. This confuses the brain and the brain may learn to ignore the image from the weaker eye  according to the NIH.

Characteristics of the condition include eyes that do not appear to work together, including one eye turning in or out.  The patient may have poor vision in one eye and have difficulty with depth perception.

Early identification and treatment of lazy eye are important. Testing includes a vision screening and observing that the eyes may not coordinate properly. Typical treatment is to identify and correct any vision problems of the weaker eye using glasses or contact lenses, according to the study, which noted that while simply correcting the vision of children, ages 3 to 7, produced improvements of vision, older children, ages 7 to 12, had improved results by combining vision correction with patch therapy. Patch therapy, known as occlusion therapy, involves placing a patch over the child’s stronger eye and performing eye strengthening exercises with the weaker eye. But poor compliance to patch therapy is common, according to authors.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.