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Amblyopia Treatment Development Through the Ages


7 min


The history of amblyopia treatment

Amblyopia, commonly known as “lazy eye,” is a visual disorder that affects approximately 2 to 3% of the global population. It occurs when the brain and the eye fail to work together effectively, resulting in reduced vision in one eye. This condition can lead to significant vision impairment if left untreated.

Over the years, medical science has made remarkable strides in developing treatments for amblyopia. This blog takes you on a journey through the ages, exploring the amblyopia treatment development from ancient times to modern advancements.

The Etymology of Amblyopia

The word amblyopia derives from the Greek wordsambly’ which means dull and ‘ops’ that means vision, hence ‘amblyopia’, or in translation the ‘’dullness of vision’’. In this article, we will investigate an interesting history of amblyopia treatment and how it developed through the ages!

The beginnings of the History of Amblyopia Treatment in Ancient Times

The first mention of ‘’amblyopia’’ dates back to the fifth century BC to the old Greek civilization. Back then, Hippocrates used the word amblyopia to name conditions that resulted in decreased visual acuity in seemingly healthy eyes.

Old Greeks also defined ‘strabismus’ as a disorder of eye movements and position. By today’s standards, they proposed sort of bizarre treatment options, but at least it meant a start in amblyopia treatment.

More than a thousand years later though, in the Byzantine empire, in the year around 900 AD, the first-ever mention of occlusion for the treatment of strabismus appeared. In the 13th century, the first-ever eye hospital was established in France. Furthermore, in the 16th century a German physician designed special hoods to put them over one’s head to treat strabismus.

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Treatment of strabismus in the 16th century.
Treatment of strabismus for esotropia (1 and 2) and exotropia (3).

The Start of Ophthalmology: From Cover Tests to Early Surgical Attempts

The actual start of ophthalmology as such is believed to have occurred in 1765 in Paris, France, when the first chair of ophthalmology was established. Approximately 50 years earlier, in the year 1722, a French ophthalmologist Charles de Saint-Yves wrote in his book that by covering non-strabismic eye, the strabismic eye will immediately look straight ahead – something that we now know as a cover test. He also proposed that the non-strabismic eye should be covered in order to restore the correct eye position in the strabismic eye.

Read how Charles Described the Cover Test in his Book

“One was sometimes obliged to fully cover the non-strabismic eye, thereby straightening the strabismic eye and so as to be dependent on this eye, it will get used to looking straight ahead”

He continued: “When one closes the non-strabismic eye, the squinting eye will now look straight ahead and when opening the eye again one now finds a squint in the eye that was straight before.”

How is the Strabismus is Assessed Today?

In fact, the cover test is still one of the methods used to assess strabismus today. It is the primary component in the identification and diagnosis of strabismus and consists of two tests: the cover-uncover test and the alternating cover test.

Read more on how the strabismus is assessed today.

Beginning of the Occlusion / Patching Era

A few years later, in 1743, George Comte de Buffon, another French physician, described that the weak eye regains all its strength by occluding the good eye, which is why he is considered as a beginner of the occlusion therapy in amblyopia.

The first Operations for Strabismus

The first idea of treating strabismus (and amblyopia) surgically came in the 18th century by John Taylor, although his surgical techniques on eye muscles were later recognized as a fraud.

Roughly a hundred years later though, Germans Stromeyer and Dieffenbach, and a Belgian, Cunier, were the first to perform a proper surgery for treating strabismus. Later it was also noted by Ludwig Boehm that the surgery to correct strabismus also improves amblyopia.

The Beginning of Modern Ophthalmology

The modern ophthalmology then started in 1850 with the discovery of an ophthalmoscope by Ferdinand von Helmholtz. It was only then that ophthalmologists were able to visualize the retina and describe the amblyopic eye as functionally healthy, without any detectable abnormalities.

The extensive research of eye disorders then started by ophthalmologists and Donders and Von Graefe started discussing extensively whether strabismus causes amblyopia or vice versa. The discussion then continued for almost a hundred years until the mid-20th century.

Amblyopia Treatment Development: Occlusion and Fusion Exercises

Whilst first attempts for the treatment of amblyopia and strabismus were mostly occlusion, in the 18th and 19th century quite a few doctors came up with somewhat novel fusion exercises.

Erasmus Darwin in England prescribed some sort of fusion exercises by which he separated the two visual fields, aiming to better vision.

Later,Louis Emile Javal, who was a strong opponent of the surgical treatment, came up with certain orthoptic exercises and occlusion for the re-establishment of binocular vision.

Later still, Claud Worth used the occlusion and introduced the use of atropine – what we now know as penalization – as an alternative to occlusion. He also invented the active training stimulation device known as ‘amblyoscope’.

Ernest Edmund Maddox later invented all sorts of different orthoptic devices and devoted his and his daughter’s career to orthoptic training, including the use of the forementioned Worth amblyoscope. His daughter Mary later established the first orthoptic clinic which was situated in London, UK.

Modern Occlusion is (Re)introduced

Later, at the beginning of the 20th century, occlusion therapy was re-introduced extensively into clinical practice in amblyopia. Sattler started to use an eye patch as we know today, although he suggested the occlusion for at least several days continually – contrary to what is known today.

At the beginning of the 20th century, occlusion therapy was re-introduced extensively into clinical practice in amblyopia.
Occlusion therapy

What he was completely correct about, though, was the fact that occlusion is the most effective in children up to the age of 6-8. At roughly the same time Weckert proposed the use of spectacle occluder instead of an eye patch, and this technique was generally more accepted by children than Sattler’s eyepatch.

How long should the occlusion last?

In the coming decades, there was an extensive debate about the benefits and duration of occlusion, and the top-notch professionals back then could still not agree completely whether amblyopia is caused by strabismus or vice versa.

They also started to recognize the potential side effects of prolonging occlusion (occlusion amblyopia, increased strabismus and the loss of binocularity) and therefore started to experiment with patching only a few hours per day.

Modern Approaches to Amblyopia Treatment

During the 20th century, the occlusion therapy became ever more sophisticated especially in terms of the most effective duration of occlusion times.

Perhaps even more importantly, the ophthalmologists also came to the agreement that robust refractive correction is at least as important as the occlusion itself, especially in anisometropic etiology of amblyopia.

The improved surgical techniques made strabismus correction more effective and also much safer. An alternative to the occlusion, called penalization was introduced into clinical practice and it represents an alluring alternative to date, particularly in those who cannot cooperate with conventional occlusion.

Finally, the ever more powerful computers and continuing digitalization enabled the development of all sorts of new active treatment approaches, including, but not limited to, pleoptic training, perceptual learning and binocular dichoptic training which are more extensively discussed here.

Read about the active treatment approaches here.

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Conclusion: Amblyopia Treatment Development

For two and a half millennia we have known that amblyopia exists and for the same period of time we have been trying to treat it.

Throughout history, many bizarre and ineffective, possibly even dangerous ways of amblyopia treatment were proposed, but none of them seem to bring as effective results as the simplest of them all – occlusion.

Combined with refractive correction, surgical intervention in certain instances, and additional active treatment option, we are, as of today, better equipped for amblyopia treatment than ever. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we can rest on our laurels and we must all strive to invent ever more effective and patient-friendly ways of treatment! 

Frequently Asked Questions

How did the term “amblyopia” originate, and what does it mean?

The word “amblyopia” has Greek origins, deriving from ‘ambly’ meaning dull and ‘ops’ meaning vision. Therefore, “amblyopia” translates to the “dullness of vision.”

When and where did the history of amblyopia treatment begin?

The history of amblyopia treatment dates back to the fifth century BC in ancient Greece, where Hippocrates first used the term “amblyopia” to describe conditions causing decreased visual acuity. The treatment methods proposed during that time were the initial attempts at addressing amblyopia.

When did ophthalmology as a medical discipline begin, and what were some early developments in amblyopia treatment?

Ophthalmology is believed to have started in 1765 in Paris, France, with the establishment of the first chair of ophthalmology. Charles de Saint-Yves, a French ophthalmologist in 1722, introduced the cover test, a method still used today to assess strabismus. The first surgical attempts for treating strabismus occurred in the 18th century.

What were some early methods of amblyopia treatment in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Early treatments focused on occlusion therapy, with George Comte de Buffon in 1743 describing the strengthening of the weak eye by occluding the good eye. Fusion exercises, proposed by doctors like Erasmus Darwin and Louis Emile Javal, aimed to improve vision by separating visual fields.

How did occlusion therapy evolve in the 20th century, and what were some debates surrounding its use?

In the 20th century, occlusion therapy was reintroduced extensively, with debates on its benefits and duration. Professionals explored the potential side effects of prolonged occlusion, leading to experiments with patching only a few hours per day. The therapy became more sophisticated, emphasizing the importance of robust refractive correction.

What is the current state of amblyopia treatment?

As of today, amblyopia treatment combines occlusion therapy, refractive correction, surgical intervention in certain cases, and various active treatment options.

Loudon S. E. and Simonsz H. J. (2005). The history of the treatment of amblyopia. Strabismus 13, 93-106.
Papageorgiou E., Asproudis I., Maconachie G., Tsironi EE. and Gottlob I. (2019). The treatment of amblyopia: current practice and emerging trends. Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol 257(6), 1061-1078.

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