By Dr. Steve Jacobs
Summer is the time for contact lenses for sports, beach time, gardening… you name it. Many activities are enhanced by the freedom of not wearing framed glasses. From the first hand-blown glass contact lenses of the 1880s to today’s space age, one-day, throw-aways, technology keeps blasting forward. Popularity soared in the ‘50s with the advent of ‘hard’, corneal lenses made of PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate – aka Plexiglass or Lucite). Before then, scleral lenses covered the whole front of the eye. They had to be custom molded (not an altogether fun process) and could only be tolerated for limited periods. Interestingly, modern technology has led to a comeback in contact lens popularity.
Contact lenses really took off in the 1970s with the introduction of soft lenses. Initially, worn until torn, lost or unbearably uncomfortable, today almost all soft lenses are worn for just a single day or up to a month. About 30 million Americans wear contact lenses ~ most for all day to day activities, but many use them as a supplement rather than to replace glasses, for exercise, social wear, etc. One-day lenses are the healthiest, most comfortable and most convenient option and are available whether you have astigmatism, need bifocals, want to change your eye color, or are nearsighted or farsighted, often making them the perfect choice for full-time or part-time wear. Due to advances in manufacturing and their lack of need for solutions, they can be more environmentally-friendly than monthly lenses.
Kids love contact lenses. They are a real esteem booster, especially by middle and high school with involvement in sports and ever-increasing social activities. I’m often asked: “How old should a child be to wear contact lenses?” My answer: “Age doesn’t matter a whole lot.” I’ve worked with young kids who are meticulous and department heads at Virginia Tech who are totally irresponsible with their lenses. Most 7- or 8-year-olds have the fine motor skills to handle lenses without problems. Beyond that, all that’s necessary is motivation and a modicum of maturity.
Active schedules and contact lenses are a great combo. Once on, they’re on for the day with no worry of leaving them one place or another. Some new designs may even slow down nearsightedness (myopia) by changing how light focuses in the eye, and do this more effectively than glasses. Myopia, which has nearly doubled in the past 40 years, increases the risk of glaucoma, macular degeneration and other retinal problems as one ages. Ongoing research and greater understanding are producing new approaches and contact lens designs to meet this challenge.
Another challenge being met is when contact lenses are needed for functional vision and not just for look or convenience. Conditions such as keratoconus (very irregular shape to the front of the eye), eye trauma or corneal surgery may lead to distortion and significant visual impairment even with glasses. Technological advances are opening the world for these people. That “old” idea, scleral lenses, has received new life. Soft lenses take on the eye’s shape and don’t do much about irregularity. Rigid, corneal lenses may rub against the irregular area, not stay in position or be uncomfortable to wear for extended periods. Scleral lenses, on the other hand, vault over the irregularity. Fluid fills the gap between the front of the eye and the contact lens, allowing the lens to become the “new” front surface and provide more normal vision. Since it fits on a less sensitive part of the eye, comfort is usually quite good. Another specialty lens, a Hybrid, has a rigid center allowing correction of many irregularities, with a soft outer portion providing better stability and comfort closer to that of a soft lens.
Whether a specialty design is needed, you want something just to wear to complement that new blue outfit, or you want to crank out a report and then go waterskiing, today’s contact lenses are better than ever at letting you look and see your best. Let them do their thing. Give them a try!!
Steve Jacobs, O.D., has been in business in the New River Valley more than 25 years, and he contributes in numerous ways with time, energy, fundraisers and contributions to the community.