South Bay patients see their way to better life with eye therapy
By Sandy Cohen, DAILY BREEZE, Photos by
Kim Haggerty Zylius, DAILY BREEZE
Just because someone has perfect vision doesn't mean he can see.
Take South High School baseball player Matt Hopps. He had 20/20 vision and a natural knack for sports, but when it was his turn to bat, he couldn't see the ball.
What Matt, 17, didn't realize was that his eyes weren't working together. Each saw its own image, and the result was a blur.
No wonder he never liked reading.
"I just didn't like reading so I never really tried," said the Torrance teenager. "But when baseball was becoming difficult, I really wanted to fix it."
A traditional eye exam confirmed Matt's perfect eyesight. But it took a specialist, developmental optometrist Albert Chun, to discover the problem: convergence insufficiency, a fairly common but under-diagnosed condition where the eyes don't work as a team, thus failing to fuse together the individual images they see. Resulting vision can be blurred or two-dimensional, and interfere with reading, learning and sports.
No corrective lenses exist for the problem. Instead, Matt's prescription was 20 weeks of vision therapy, which retrains the muscles that move the eyes and helps patients make sense of what they see.
"It's not about how clearly they see, it's about how they use their eyes," Chun said. "There's a misconception that just because a child has 20/20 vision, everything is A-OK."
Because convergence insufficiency and related disorders, including tracking and focusing problems, make reading so challenging, sufferers often are thought to have learning disabilities or attention-deficit disorder, Chun said.
"They're labeled as daydreamers, but the effort involved (in reading) is a comprehension-robber," he said. "Sixty percent of kids with reading problems have undetected vision problems."
Though vision therapy has been around for 70 years, it's still a little-known remedy for an under-recognized problem. Chun is one of just two developmental optometrists in the South Bay who specialize in vision therapy.
Developmental vision problems are most often found in school-age children. These youths usually struggle academically and avoid sports, but vision problems are likely the last thing parents consider.
Even teachers may not be aware that learning difficulties can be vision related.
"It's not something that usually comes up in teacher ed courses," said Shelley Miller, a teacher at Torrance's Tower Elementary School whose 6-year-old son, Gregory, benefits from vision therapy. "But it's such a relief for the parent and the child. They stop blaming themselves."
Chun puts patients through a comprehensive eye exam to determine what they can see and how their brain understands the information.
He might find a child has trouble with tracking -- the ability to follow words on a page, or a moving target, with their eyes. It could be a case of amblyopia, or lazy eye, where one eye seems to be looking off into space.
The problem could be an inability to focus the eyes quickly enough to see clearly close up and far away. It could be convergence insufficiency, as was Matt's problem. Or it could be any combination of the above.
Once Chun determines the problem, he recommends a course of therapy, often one 45-minute session a week for 20 weeks. Most patients also do a few minutes of daily eye exercises at home. The object is to get the six muscles that move each eye to work like they should.
"It's about the brain controlling muscle output," Chun said. "It can be taught. And once you learn it well, you're done."
In other words, the results are permanent, like learning how to whistle or ride a bike.
A typical vision therapy session includes various games and activities.
A computer game requires the patient to layer graphic images on top of one another, like the eyes should do naturally.
One device looks like a giant clock. As different numbers light up, the patient relies on his peripheral vision and hand-eye coordination to touch the light source.
One activity has the patient jumping on a trampoline while maintaining focus on a static object on the wall.
"Our goal is to make it fun so they're successful," Chun said. "For many, this is the first time they're successful."
For patient Tim Gomez, a 17-year-old senior at Redondo Union High School, success came in the form of freedom from the terrible headaches that plagued him most of his life. He struggled with schoolwork and hated reading, and he always thought something was wrong with his eyes. But when he had them checked, the doctor said he had perfect vision.
Tim discovered vision therapy after his aunt read an article about it. After a month of weekly treatments, he said he can already see a difference.
"A month ago I couldn't even look at a book. It would all blur together," he said. "The constant horrible headaches have stopped. It's amazing, after four weeks, to have such a big benefit."
Matt's success is even more dramatic. After completing 20 weeks of vision therapy, he brought his GPA up from 2.8 to 4.0. His batting average increased from .239 to .382.
Matt's mother, Amber Kuglin, is thrilled with his progress but sorry her son suffered so long with vision problems.
"Nobody told me about this, so it was quite a discovery," she said. "I'm very grateful that there are people aware of this problem. He doesn't need surgery, he doesn't need glasses. He just had to retrain the muscles to do what they're supposed to do."
With his new straight-A average and rising batting average, Matt is hoping to catch the eye of college baseball scouts this spring. Meanwhile, he's developed a new hobby.
"I'm just getting into reading," he said. "I just finished a book. It was 400 pages. And it didn't take that long either."
Publish Date: January 26, 2004
There's more to healthy vision than 20/20 eyesight!
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