Our Readers Want to Know: What Does It Mean When My Eye Doctor Tells Me I Have “Low Vision”?

logo for AMD/Low Vision Awareness Month

Editor’s note: One of the many benefits associated with an online information center and website, such as VisionAware, is the ability to track readers’ search terms [i.e., information readers are seeking as they search online].

Of particular concern to many readers are issues related to the diagnosis and treatment of low vision, as evidenced by the following searches:

  • I’ve been told I have low vision, but what does this mean?
  • How is low vision different from blindness?
  • Is there a cure for low vision?

An Answer from VisionAware: What “Low Vision” Means

As we age, our eyes change too. In most cases, regular eyeglasses or contact lenses can correct many of these vision changes. However, if your eye doctor tells you that your vision cannot be fully corrected with ordinary prescription glasses, medication, or surgery and you still have some usable vision, you have what is called “low vision.”

Having low vision means that even with regular glasses, contact lenses, medication, or surgery, you may find it difficult to perform everyday tasks, such as reading your mail, shopping, preparing meals, and signing your name.

Signs and Symptoms of Low Vision

There are many signs and symptoms that can indicate low vision. For example, even with your regular eye glasses, do you have difficulty:

What Causes Low Vision?

Among older persons, low vision can result from specific eye conditions, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy; from a stroke; or from a range of other eye conditions. Low vision can affect your ability to see people’s faces, watch television, read, drive, and use a computer.

What You Should Know about Low Vision

Having “low vision” is not the same as being “blind.” For example, your doctor may tell you that you have a blind or blank spot in the center of your vision that limits your ability to read or see people’s faces; nevertheless, you can still get around using your side (or peripheral) vision:

Simulation of the effects of macular degeneration, with central visual field loss

A simulation of central visual field loss from macular degeneration
Source: Henry Ford Center for Vision Rehabilitation and Research

Or you may have problems seeing well with your peripheral (or side) vision, but still see clearly enough to read the newspaper using your central vision:

A living room viewed through a constricted visual field

A living room viewed through a constricted visual field.
Source: Making Life More Livable. Used with permission.

There is Help for Low Vision

The important thing is to know that help is available for you. For example, eye doctors who are low vision specialists can provide you with a low vision exam as a first step in determining how you can use your remaining vision. Often, a low vision specialist can give you recommendations about low vision optical devices, non-optical devices, electronic magnifiers, and vision rehabilitation services that can help you maximize your remaining vision and learn new ways of doing everyday tasks.

Some examples of helpful devices that a low vision specialist can discuss with you include:

Reading with an illuminated stand magnifier
Reading with a lighted
stand magnifier

Low Vision Services

Low vision services can include any or all of the following:

What Are Low Vision Devices?

a hand-held stand magnifier
Stand magnifier with a handle

Low vision devices can help you make the most of your vision so that you can perform everyday tasks more easily and with less frustration.

Some devices, such as optical and non-optical aids, offer very simple and relatively inexpensive solutions. Other devices, such as electronic and digital magnifiers, may be slightly more complex and costly.

However, both optical devices and electronic or digital devices require training to use them efficiently and effectively. Training is always one of the main keys to success with the use of low vision devices.

There are several different categories of low vision devices: optical devices, non-optical devices, and electronic magnifiers and magnifying systems. Low vision devices are task-specific, designed for close-up visual tasks or distance viewing. You may require several different devices to accomplish different tasks, depending upon your eye condition and your everyday living needs.

Low Vision Optical Devices

Low vision optical devices include a variety of helpful visual aids, including stand and hand-held magnifiers, strong magnifying reading glasses, loupes, and small telescopes. Because these devices can provide greatly increased magnification powers and prescription strengths, along with higher-quality optics (i.e., the way the lens bends or refracts light), they are different from regular glasses and magnifiers that you can buy in a local store or online. Most often they require training to help you use them effectively.

Low Vision Non-Optical Devices

Low vision non-optical devices can include adaptations such as reading stands, supplemental lighting, absorptive (or glare control) sunglasses, typoscopes, and tactile locator dots. They can be used in combination with low vision optical devices and can help with reading, organizing, labeling, and a variety of everyday tasks.

Electronic Magnifying Systems

Electronic magnifying systems come in many different varieties and sizes, depending upon the task or activity you want, or need, to do. Some have a camera system that displays a magnified image on a monitor, which can be helpful for reading mail, books, and magazines, while others are hand-held, portable, and can be taken to the supermarket to read labels and coupons, or to restaurants for reading menus.

How Can I Obtain a Low Vision Device?

They are often recommended as part of a low vision examination. A low vision exam by a low vision specialist — an ophthalmologist or optometrist with credentials or specialization in low vision testing, diagnosis, and treatment — is the best way to decide what type of device or devices are best for you, your eye condition, and your everyday living needs. At your low vision evaluation, you will have the opportunity to try a variety of devices in a variety of settings and learn first-hand how they can work for you.

For more information about low vision services and providers, see Meet Joseph Fontenot, MD, CVLT: Be Informed and Proactive About Low Vision Services, Protect Yourself, and Always “Buyer Beware” on the VisionAware blog.

How Can I Locate a Low Vision Specialist?

You can find a listing of low vision specialists in the Low Vision Services category in the AFB Directory of Services. In addition to the low vision providers in the Directory listings, you can find additional providers through the following directories:

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