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Amblyopia is an uncorrectable decrease in vision in one or both eyes with no apparent structural abnormality seen to explain it. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that when a decrease in vision is detected, other causes must be ruled out. Once no other cause is found, amblyopia is the diagnosis. Generally, a difference of two lines or more (on an eye-chart test of visual acuity) between the two eyes or a best corrected vision of 20/30 or worse would be defined as amblyopia. For example, if someone has 20/20 vision with the right eye and only 20/40 with the left, and the left eye cannot achieve better vision with corrective lenses, the left eye is said to be amblyopic.


Lazy eye is a common non-medical term used to describe amblyopia because the eye with poorer vision doesn't seem to be doing its job of seeing. Amblyopia is the most common cause of impaired vision in children, affecting nearly three out of every 100 people or 2-4% of the population. Vision is a combination of the clarity of the images of the eyes (visual acuity) and the processing of those images by the brain. If the images produced by the two eyes are substantially different, the brain may not be able to fuse the images. Instead of seeing two different images or double vision (diplopia), the brain suppresses the blurrier image. This suppression can lead to amblyopia. During the first few years of life, preferring one eye over the other may lead to poor visual development in the blurrier eye.

Causes and symptoms

Some of the major causes of amblyopia are as follows:
  • Strabismus. A misalignment of the eyes (strabismus) is the most common cause of functional amblyopia. The two eyes are looking in two different directions at the same time. The brain is sent two different images and this causes confusion. Images from the misaligned or "crossed" eye are turned off to avoid double vision.
  • Anisometropia. This is another type of functional amblyopia. In this case, there is a difference of refractive states between the two eyes (in other words, a difference of prescriptions between the two eyes). For example, one eye may be more nearsighted than the other eye, or one eye may be farsighted and the other eye nearsighted. Because the brain cannot fuse the two dissimilar images, the brain will suppress the blurrier image, causing the eye to become amblyopic.
  • Cataract. Clouding of the lens of the eye will cause the image to be blurrier than the other eye. The brain "prefers" the clearer image. The eye with the cataract may become amblyopic.
  • Ptosis. This is the drooping of the upper eyelid. If light cannot enter the eye because of the drooping lid, the eye is essentially not being used. This can lead to amblyopia.
  • Nutrition. A type of organic amblyopia in which nutritional deficiencies or chemical toxicity may result in amblyopia. Alcohol, tobacco, or a deficiency in the B vitamins may result in toxic amblyopia.
  • Heredity. Amblyopia can run in families.
Barring the presence of strabismus or ptosis, children may or may not show signs of amblyopia. Children may hold their heads at an angle while trying to favor the eye with normal vision. They may have trouble seeing or reaching for things when approached from the side of the amblyopic eye. Parents should see if one side of approach is preferred by the child or infant. If an infant's good eye is covered, the child may cry.


Because children with outwardly normal eyes may have amblyopia, it is important to have regular vision screenings performed for all children. While there is some controversy regarding the age children should have their first vision examination, their eyes can, in actuality, be examined at any age, even at one day of life.
Some recommend that children have their vision checked by their pediatrician, family physician, ophthalmologist, or optometrist at or before six months of age. Others recommend testing by at least the child's fourth birthday. There may be a "critical period" in the development of vision, and amblyopia may not be treatable after age eight or nine. The earlier amblyopia is found, the better the possible outcome. Most physicians test vision as part of a child's medical examination. If there is any sign of an eye problem, they may refer a child to an eye specialist.
There are objective methods, such as retinoscopy, to measure the refractive status of the eyes. This can help determine anisometropia. In retinoscopy, a handheld instrument is used to shine a light in the child's (or infant's) eyes. Using hand-held lenses, a rough prescription can be obtained. Visual acuity can be determined using a variety of methods. Many different eye charts are available (e.g., tumbling E, pictures, or letters). In amblyopia, single letters are easier to recognize than when a whole line is shown. This is called the "crowding effect" and helps in diagnosing amblyopia. Neutral density filters may also be held over the eye to aid in the diagnosis. Sometimes visual fields to determine defects in the area of vision will be performed. Color vision testing may also be performed. Again, it must be emphasized that amblyopia is a diagnosis of exclusion. Visual or life-threatening problems can also cause a decrease in vision. An examination of the eyes and visual system is very important when there is an unexplained decrease in vision.


The primary treatment for amblyopia is occlusion therapy. It is important to alternate patching the good eye (forcing the amblyopic eye to work) and the amblyopic eye. If the good eye is constantly patched, it too may become amblyopic because of disuse. The treatment plan should be discussed with the doctor to fully understand how long the patch will be on. When patched, eye exercises may be prescribed to force the amblyopic eye to focus and work. This is called vision therapy or vision training (eye exercises). Even after vision has been restored in the weak eye, part-time patching may be required over a period of years to maintain the improvement.

Key terms

Anisometropia — An eye condition in which there is an inequality of vision between the two eyes. There may be unequal amounts of nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism, so that one eye will be in focus while the other will not.
Cataract — Cloudiness of the eye's natural lens.
Occulsion therapy — A type of treatment for amblyopia in which the good eye is patched for a period of time. This forces the weaker eye to be used.
Strabismus — A condition in which the eyes are misaligned and point in different directions. One eye may look straight ahead, while the other turns inward, outward, upward, or downward. This is also called crossed-eyes.
Visual acuity — Acuity is the acuteness or sharpness of vision.
While patching is necessary to get the amblyopic eye to work, it is just as important to correct the reason for the amblyopia. Glasses may also be worn if there are errors in refraction. Surgery or vision training may be necessary in the case of strabismus. Better nutrition is indicated in some toxic amblyopias. Occasionally, amblyopia is treated by blurring the vision in the good eye with eye drops or lenses to force the child to use the amblyopic eye.


The younger the person, the better the chance for improvement with occlusion and vision therapy. However, treatment may be successful in older children—even adults. Success in the treatment of amblyopia also depends upon how severe the amblyopia is, the specific type of amblyopia, and patient compliance. It is important to diagnose and treat amblyopia early because significant vision loss can occur if left untreated. The best outcomes result from early diagnosis and treatment.


To protect their child's vision, parents must be aware of amblyopia as a potential problem. This awareness may encourage parents to take young children for vision exams early on in life—certainly before school age. Proper nutrition is important in the avoidance of toxic amblyopia.



American Academy of Ophthalmology. 655 Beach Street, P.O. Box 7424, San Francisco, CA 94120-7424.
American Optometric Association. 243 North Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63141. (314) 991-4100.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


impairment of vision not due to organic defect or refractive errors. adj., adj amblyop´ic.
color amblyopia impairment of color vision due to toxic or other influences.
nutritional amblyopia central or centrocecal scotomata due to poor nutrition; seen in persons with a history of alcohol abuse and those with severe nutritional deprivation or vitamin B12 deficiency, as in pernicious anemia. Complete recovery is possible with good diet and B vitamins; prolonged deficiency results in permanent loss of central vision.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Poor vision caused by abnormal development of visual areas of the brain in response to abnormal visual stimulation during early development.
[G. amblyōpia, dimness of vision, fr. amblys dull, + ōps, eye]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


Dimness of vision, especially when occurring in one eye without apparent physical defect or disease. Also called lazy eye.

am′bly·o′pic (-ō′pĭk, -ŏp′ĭk) adj.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


The usually uniocular impaired visual acuity in absence of an organic leson. While it cannot be managed with glasses, amblyopia is reversible up to the age of about 8 years with occlusive or other therapies.
Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.


Opthalmology Impaired vision without an organic eye lesion
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Visual impairment not due to an ocular lesion and not fully correctable by an artificial lens. Possibly caused by abnormal visual experience during early life.
Synonym(s): lazy eye.
[G. amblyōpia, dimness of vision, fr. amblys dull, + ōps, eye]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


1. A dysfunction of the processing of visual information resulting from failure, from any cause, to form sharp, central retinal images in early life. The three possible causes are squint (strabismus), ANISOMETROPIA or deprivation input from any cause such as a drooping lid or a congenital CATARACT. In most cases the affected eye or eyes appear structurally normal.
2. Visual defect resulting from poisoning (toxic amblyopia) or a deficiency of an essential dietary ingredient. The term derived from the Greek amblus , dull or blunt and ops , an eye.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


A condition characterized by reduced visual acuity due to a lesion in the eye or in the visual pathway, which hinders the normal development of vision, and which is not correctable by spectacles or contact lenses. The usual clinical criterion is 6/9 (or 20/30) or less in one eye, or a two-line difference or more, on the acuity chart between the two eyes. Amblyopia may occur as a result of: suppression in the deviated eye in strabismus (strabismic amblyopia; formerly called amblyopia ex anopsia, which amounts to about 20% of all cases); a blurred image in the more ametropic eye in uncorrected anisometropia (anisometropic amblyopia which amounts to about 50% of all cases); bilateral blurred images in uncorrected refractive errors (isoametropic amblyopia); a blurred image in one of the meridians of high uncorrected astigmatism (meridional amblyopia); any of the above three is also called refractive amblyopia; opacities in the ocular media (e.g. congenital cataract, severe ptosis) in infants (stimulus deprivation amblyopia or visual deprivation amblyopia or image degradation amblyopia) after the lesion has been removed; continuous occlusion of an eye as may occur in occlusion treatment (occlusion amblyopia); arsenic, lead or quinine poisoning (toxic amblyopia) or the more specific types of toxic amblyopia such as those caused by excessive use of alcohol (alcohol amblyopia), methanol (methanol amblyopia), quinine (quinine amblyopia) or tobacco (tobacco amblyopia), although the latter three may actually be due to nutritional deficiencies (nutritional amblyopia); psychological origin (hysterical amblyopia) or of unknown origin (idiopathic amblyopia).Many of these amblyopias are functional, i.e. in which no organic lesion exists as in hysterical, refractive (e.g. meridional amblyopia), isoametropic, strabismic or stimulus deprivation amblyopia. Others are organic, i.e. they are due to some pathological (e.g. congenital cataract) or anatomical anomalies (e.g. malorientation of retinal receptors), as in nutritional or toxic. However, there may be cases in which a functional amblyopia is due in part to some accompanying undetected pathology or structural defects (e.g. a change in retinal fibre layer thickness). Amblyopia occurs in 2-4% of the population. There is usually a reduction in the amplitude of accommodation in amblyopic eyes. Treatment of amblyopia depends on the type. However, the younger the patient, the more likely that the treatment will be successful. Typically, the principal treatment is occlusion of the fixating eye (or the eye with the best acuity) by patching or blurring with atropine sulfate to force the other eye to take up fixation, after full refractive correction and treatment of the underlying pathology. Other procedures (alternatives or supplemental to patching) include penalization, kicking a ball towards a specific target, playing catch a ball, bar reading, pleoptics (when there is eccentric fixation as well), and any other procedures which require fixation like drawing, duplicating letter sequences on a typewriter, cutting out patterns, etc. See cheiroscope; pinhole disc; eccentric fixation; Glasgow acuity cards; occlusion treatment; penalization; critical period; crowding phenomenon; pleoptics; suppression; bar reading test; neutral density filter test.
hysterical amblyopia Apparent loss of vision due to a psychological disorder. The patient really believes that he or she cannot see, although this is not supported by physiological impairment. The condition is often characterized by a constricted visual field or tunnel vision.
meridional amblyopia Amblyopia in one of the two principal meridians of an astigmatic eye. The amblyopia usually affects the most defocused meridian and its severity tends to vary with the amount of astigmatism. This amblyopia is of neural origin. Optical correction of the patient as young as possible usually prevents this condition. Syn. astigmatic amblyopia.
Millodot: Dictionary of Optometry and Visual Science, 7th edition. © 2009 Butterworth-Heinemann
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