“How much longer do I have to live, Doc?”
I paused, taken aback by his response. “Charlie, why do you think you’re dying??”
“You just told me have THE stigmatism! My parents always told me that’s the worst thing you can have and there’s no cure!” he exclaimed, punctuating his answer with tiny jabs of his right hand.
“Charlie, astigmatism isn’t a disease. It’s just part of your glasses prescription, like being nearsighted or farsighted. It just makes things blurry for you.”
“Oh.” He hesitates before opening his mouth again to say, “…then maybe the smoking DID kill my Aunt Jo.”
There’s always a lot of confusion around astigmatism as a whole- what it is, who has it, why we have it, and what can be done about it.
Astigmatism is just a common visual condition that causes blurry vision because a person’s cornea (the front of the eye) and/or their lens (inside the eye) is irregularly shaped. When these structure have an irregular curvature, light coming into the eye is not focused properly on the retina, which causes blur. Besides blurry vision, common symptoms of astigmatism are eye discomfort/strain and headaches.
Like most visual conditions, astigmatism can change, increasing or decreasing with time. It is often hereditary but astigmatism can also develop independent of genetic factors. Many patients with severe, chronic allergies and who aggressively rub their eyes can cause increases in astigmatism because they manually shape the front of their eyes through the mechanical force of their eye rubbing.
Why does the curvature of the cornea or the lens matter? The curvature bends the light entering the eye with the goal of focusing it precisely on the retina for clear, crisp vision. However, with astigmatism, the eye cannot bend the light to a single point which results in blur at all distances.
Most astigmatism is easily managed through an eyeglasses or contact lens prescription, as diagnosed and prescribed by your eye doctor. Glasses and contacts treat astigmatism by altering how light enters the eye and allowing the light to reach the retina at a single, clear point. Laser surgery does a similar job by physically reshaping the front of the eye by removing layers of corneal tissue to affect the curvature.
*Fun fact: back in the day, patients with moderate to severe astigmatism could only wear uncomfortable hard contact lenses, but now there are so many amazing soft contact lens options that give patients great vision and comfort in spite of their astigmatism!
At the end of the day, astigmatism is no more frightening than learning you are either far-sighted or near-sighted. Again, it’s a very common visual condition that many people have to some degree. If you think you suffer from any symptoms like blur, eye fatigue, eye strain, & headaches, your optometrist can evaluate to see what ails you and prescribe the right visual correction for you!