Hopkins researchers find eye drops preferable to eye patch in treating children's amblyopia

March 13, 2002

Researchers at Johns Hopkins and 54 eye-care centers across North America have found two competing methods of correcting a mild form of children's amblyopia -- pejoratively called "lazy eye"-- are equally effective in correcting the vision disorder.

But the researchers also found parents generally preferred atropine treatment, in which the child receives painless eye drops that blur the unaffected eye, to patching, in which the child's unaffected eye is covered with a patch. Both treatments challenge the amblyopic eye to work harder at focusing properly by covering or blurring vision in the normal eye.

"Amblyopia is the most common cause of visual loss in children and young adults," says Johns Hopkins Children's Center and Wilmer Eye Institute ophthalmologist Michael X. Repka, M.D., who led the project. "If there is a good treatment with which the patients will comply, more cases of permanent visual loss can be prevented."

The study, published in this month's Archives of Ophthalmology, is the first systematic comparison of two methods for correcting amblyopia, and addresses doctors' questions about which method is better. Patching is prescribed much more often.

Researchers from Mexico, the United States and Canada randomized 419 children ages 6 years or younger, diagnosed with "moderate" amblyopia (visual acuity between 20/40 and 20/100 in the affected eye), into atropine and patching treatment groups. All children in the study had 20/40 vision or better in the unaffected eye. Each of the 204 children in the atropine group received atropine sulfate drops. The 215 children in the patching group were asked to wear an eye patch over the unaffected eye for an appropriate number of hours each day. Improvements in each child's amblyopia were assessed by comparing each child's visual acuity at the time of enrollment to his or her visual acuity after five, 16, and 26 weeks of treatment.

Researchers found visual acuity in the amblyopic eye improved for most of the children in each group, with 79 percent improvement in the patching group and 74 percent improvement in the atropine group. Most parents reported that their children tolerated treatment well, but parents of children in the atropine group were generally more satisfied with treatment than parents of children who wore eye patches.

"With atropine, you simply put the drop in once in the morning and there's no more monitoring of the child for the day," Repka says. "With the patch, children have to be continuously monitored since they often remove the patch. Despite the advantages of atropine, our data suggest ophthalmologists generally prescribe patching 97 percent of the time."

Amblyopia usually develops early in a child's life. Most ophthalmologists recommend treatment before a child turns 8, beyond which age treatment success rates appear to drop. According to the National Eye Institute, amblyopia affects approximately 3 percent of Americans. The severity of amblyopia varies and is usually the result of strabismus (misaligned eyes) and/or a difference in each eye's refractive abilities.
More than 200 researchers at 55 centers in Mexico, the United States and Canada contributed to the study. It was funded by the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health. Precision Vision, Stereo Optical Company, Beiersdorf-Jobst Inc., and Bausch and Lomb Pharmaceuticals Inc., provided materials for the study.

Photos and video relating to the study are available from the National Eye Institute. See http://www.nei.nih.gov/amblyopia/ for details.

"A Randomized Trial of Atropine Versus Patching for Treatment of Moderate Amblyopia in Children," Archives of Ophthalmology 2002, vol. 120, no. 3, pp. 268-278.

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions' news releases are available on an EMBARGOED basis on EurekAlert at www.eurekalert.org and from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs' direct e-mail news release service. To enroll, call 410-955-4288 or send e-mail to bsimpkins@jhmi.edu.

On a POST-EMBARGOED basis find them at www.hopkinsmedicine.org

Johns Hopkins Medicine

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