Myopia is the medical term for nearsightedness. People with myopia see objects more clearly when they are close to the eye, while distant objects appear blurred or fuzzy. Reading and close-up work may be clear, but distance vision is blurry.
To understand myopia it is necessary to have a basic knowledge of the main parts of the eye’s focusing system: the cornea, the lens, and the retina. The cornea is a tough, transparent, dome-shaped tissue that covers the front of the eye (not to be confused with the white, opaque sclera). The cornea lies in front of the iris (the colored part of the eye). The lens is a transparent, double-convex structure located behind the iris. The retina is a thin membrane that lines the rear of the eyeball. Light-sensitive retinal cells convert incoming light rays into electrical signals that are sent along the optic nerve to the brain, which then interprets the images.
In people with normal vision, parallel light rays enter the eye and are bent by the cornea and lens (a process called refraction) to focus precisely on the retina, providing a crisp, clear image. In the myopic eye, the focusing power of the cornea (the major refracting structure of the eye) and the lens is too great with respect to the length of the eyeball. Light rays are bent too much, and they converge in front of the retina. This inaccuracy is called a refractive error. In other words, an overfocused fuzzy image is sent to the brain.
There are many types of myopia. Some common types include:
By far the most common form, physiologic myopia develops in children sometime between the ages of 5-10 years and gradually progresses until the eye is fully grown. Physiologic myopia may include refractive myopia (the cornea and lens-bending properties are too strong) and axial myopia (the eyeball is too long). Pathologic myopia is a far less common abnormality. This condition begins as physiologic myopia, but rather than stabilizing, the eye continues to enlarge at an abnormal rate (progressive myopia). This more advanced type of myopia may lead to degenerative changes in the eye (degenerative myopia). Acquired myopia occurs after infancy. This condition may be seen in association with uncontrolled diabetes and certain types of cataracts. Antihypertensive drugs and other medications can also affect the refractive power of the lens.
A variety of genetic patterns for inheriting myopia have been suggested. One explanation for lack of agreement is that the genetic profile of high myopia (defined as a refractive error greater than -6 diopters) may differ from that of low myopia. Some researchers think that high myopia is determined by genetic factors to a greater extent than low myopia.
Another explanation for disagreement regarding the role of heredity in myopia is the sensitivity of the human eye to very small changes in its anatomical structure. Since even small deviations from normal structure cause significant refractive errors, it may be difficult to single out any specific genetic or environmental factor as their cause.
Since 1992, genetic markers that may be associated with genes for myopia have been located on human chromosomes 1, 2, 12, and 18. There is some genetic information on the short arm of chromosome 2 in highly myopic people. Genetic information for low myopia appears to be located on the short arm of chromosome 1, but it is not known whether this information governs the structure of the eye itself or vulnerability to environmental factors.
In 1998 a team of American researchers presented evidence that a gene for familial high myopia with an autosomal dominant transmission pattern could be mapped to human chromosome 18 in eight North American families. The same group also found a second locus for this form of myopia on human chromosome 12 in a large German/Italian family. In 1999 a group of French researchers found no linkage between chromosome 18 and 32 French families with familial high myopia. These findings have been taken to indicate that more than one gene is involved in the transmission of the disorder.
It has been known for some years that a family history of myopia is one of the most important risk factors for developing the condition. Only 6%-15% of children with myopia come from families in which neither parent is myopic. In families with one myopic parent, 23%-40% of the children develop myopia. If both parents are myopic, the rate rises to 33%-60% for their children. One American study found that children with two myopic parents are 6.42 times as likely to develop myopia themselves as children with only one or no myopic parents. The precise interplay of genetic and environmental factors in these family patterns, however, is not yet known.
One multigenerational study of Chinese subjects indicated that subjects in the third generation had a higher risk of developing myopia even if their parents were not myopic. The researchers concluded that, at least in China, the genetic factors in myopia have remained constant over the past three generations while the environmental factors have intensified. The increase in the percentage of people with myopia over the last 50 years in the United States has led American researchers to the same conclusion.
The debate continued with more recent reports. In the summer of 2004, one report said that scientists were close to identifying the myopia gene, located on chromosome 11. Another report reviewed several studies and claimed that lifestyle was to blame for myopia. For instance, a study found that 80% of 14- to 18-year old boys studying in schools in Israel that emphasize reading religious texts have myopia, while the rates for boys in state school was just 30%. It is likely that genes and environment play a role.
Myopia is the most common eye disorder in humans around the world. It affects between 25% and 35% of the adult population in the United States and the developed countries, but is thought to affect as much as 40% of the population in some parts of Asia. Some researchers have found slightly higher rates of myopia in women than in men.
The age distribution of myopia in the United States varies considerably. Five-year-olds have the lowest rate of myopia (less than 5%) of any age group. The prevalence of myopia rises among children and adolescents in school until it reaches the 25%-35% mark in the young adult population. It declines slightly in the over-45 age group; about 20% of 65-year-olds have myopia. The figure drops to 14% for Americans over 70.
Other factors that affect the demographic distribution of myopia are income level and education. The prevalence of myopia is higher among people with above-average incomes and educational attainments. Myopia is also more prevalent among people whose work requires a great deal of close focusing, including work with computers.
Causes and symptoms
Myopia is said to be caused by an elongation of the eyeball. This means that the oblong (as opposed to normal spherical) shape of the myopic eye causes the cornea and lens to focus at a point in front of the retina. A more precise explanation is that there is an inadequate correlation between the focusing power of the cornea and lens and the length of the eye.
The symptoms of myopia are blurred distance vision, eye discomfort, squinting, and eye strain.
A patient’s distance vision is tested by reading letters or numbers on a chart posted a set distance away (usually 20 ft). The doctor asks the patient to view images through a variety of lenses to obtain the best correction. The doctor also examines the inside of the eye and the retina. An instrument called a slit lamp is used to examine the cornea and lens. The eyeglass prescription is written in terms of diopters (D), which measure the degree of refractive error. Mild to moderate myopia usually falls between −1.00D and −6.00D. Normal vision is commonly referred to as 20/20 to describe the eye’s focusing ability at a distance of 20 ft from an object. For example, 20/50 means that a myopic person must stand 20 ft away from an eye chart to see what a normal person can see at 50 ft. The larger the bottom number, the greater the myopia.
People with myopia have three main options for treatment: eyeglasses, contact lenses, and for those who meet certain criteria, refractive eye surgery.
Eyeglasses are the most common method used to correct myopia. Concave glass or plastic lenses are placed in frames in front of the eyes. The lenses are ground to the thickness and curvature specified in the eyeglass prescription. The lenses cause the light rays to diverge so that they focus further back, directly on the retina, producing clear distance vision.
Contact lenses are a second option for treatment. Contact lenses are extremely thin round discs of plastic that are worn on the eye in front of the cornea. Although there may be some initial discomfort, most people quickly grow accustomed to contact lenses. Hard contact lenses, made from a material called PMMA, are virtually obsolete. Rigid gas permeable lenses (RGP) are made of plastic that holds its shape but allows the passage of some oxygen into the eye. Some believe that RGP lenses may halt or slow the progression of myopia because they maintain a constant, gentle pressure that flattens the cornea. As of 2001, the National Eye Institute is conducting an ongoing study of RGP lenses called the Contact Lens and Myopia Progression (CLAMP) Study, with results to be published in 2003.
A procedure called orthokeratology acts on this principle of “corneal molding.” However, when contact lenses are discontinued for a period of time, the cornea will generally go back to its original shape. Rigid gas permeable lenses offer crisp, clear, sight. Soft contact lenses are made of flexible plastic and can be up to 80% water. Soft lenses offer increased comfort and the advantage of extended wear; some can be worn continuously for up to one week. While oxygen passes freely through soft lenses, bacterial contamination and other problems can occur, requiring replacement of lenses on a regular basis. It is very important to follow the cleaning and disinfecting regimens prescribed because protein and lipid buildup can occur on the lenses, causing discomfort or increasing the risk of infection. Contact lenses offer several benefits over glasses, including: better vision, less distortion, clear peripheral vision, and cosmetic appeal. In addition, contacts do not steam up from perspiration or changes in temperature.
Refractive eye surgery
PHOTOREFRACTIVE KERATECTOMY. Photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) involves the use of a computer to measure the shape of the cornea. Using these measurements, the surgeon applies a computer-controlled laser to make modifications to the cornea. The PRK procedure flattens the cornea by vaporizing small amounts of tissue from the cornea’s surface. It is important to make sure the laser being used is FDA approved. Photorefractive keratectomy can be used to treat mild to moderate forms of myopia. The cost is approximately $2,000 per eye.
LASER-ASSISTED IN-SITU KERATOMILEUSIS. Laser-assisted in-situ keratomileusis (LASIK) is the newest of these procedures. It is recommended for moderate to severe cases of myopia. A variation on the PRK method, LASIK uses lasers and a cutting tool called a microkeratome to cut a circular flap on the cornea. The flap is flipped back to expose the inner layers of the cornea. The cornea is treated with a laser to change the shape and focusing properties, then the flap is replaced.
All of these surgical procedures carry risks, the most serious being corneal scarring, corneal rupture, infection, cataracts, and loss of vision. In addition, a study published in March 2001 warned that mountain climbers who have had LASIK surgery should be aware of possible changes in their vision at high altitudes. The lack of oxygen at high altitudes causes temporary changes in the thickness of the cornea.
Myopia treatments under research include corneal implants and permanent surgically placed contact lenses.
Glasses and contact lenses can (but not always) correct the patient’s vision to 20/20. Refractive surgery can make permanent improvements for the right candidates.
“Blame lifestyle for myopia, not genes.” Biotech Week July 28, 2004: 65.
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Pacell, R, et al. “Role of genetic factors in the etiology of juvenile-onset myopia based on a longitudinal study of refractive error.” Optometry and Visual Science 76 (June 1999): 381-386.
Saw, SM, et al. “Myopia: gene-environment interaction.” Annals of the Academy of Medicine of Singapore 29 (May 2000): 290-297.
“Scientists close to identifying myopia gene.” Chemistry and Industry August 16, 2004: 7.
Wu, MM, and MH Edwards. “The effect of having myopic parents: an analysis of myopia in three generations.” Optometry and Visual Science 76 (June 1999): 341-342.
American Academy of Ophthalmology. PO Box 7424, San Francisco, CA 94120-7424. (415) 561-8500. http://www.eyenet.org.
American Optometric Association. 243 North Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63141. (314) 991-4100. http://www.aoanet.org.
International Myopia Prevention Association. RD No. 5, Box 171, Ligonier, PA 15658. (412) 238-2101.
Myopia International Research Foundation. 1265 Broadway, Room 608, New York, NY 10001. (212) 684-2777.
National Eye Institute. Bldg. 31 Rm 6A32, 31 Center Dr., MSC 2510, Bethesda, MD 20892-2510. (301) 496-5248. [email protected] http://www.nei.nih.gov.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.