Behavioral optometry is a system of eye care that emphasizes visual training as a way to improve the way a patient uses his or her eyes. Rather than simply prescribe lenses to compensate for eyesight weaknesses, behavioral optometrists attempt to train the patient to see better across a range of different circumstances.
Behavioral optometry traces its roots to the writings of Dr. William H. Bates, a New York City ophthalmologist. Bates began writing in the 1920s about alternatives to the use of corrective lenses. He believed that many physical and emotional stresses caused vision problems, and that alleviating these stresses could improve vision. He noted that modern humans spend an inordinate amount of time doing close work such as reading, while the human eye may have been originally adapted for distance vision. Bates devised a program of eye training that allowed patients to gradually improve their vision without glasses. The English novelist Aldous Huxley recovered from near-blindness using Bates's system, and wrote a book about his experience.
Other optometrists built on Bates's insights, supplementing his research and ideas. Some researchers focused on the fact that the need for corrective lenses rises in proportion to a person's level of education. They concluded that the stress of reading was probably responsible for poor eyesight. Others noted that vision problems increase as cultures become increasingly industrialized and developed. Practitioners of behavioral optometry who built on and extended Bates's ideas include Dr. Raymond L. Gottlieb and Dr. Jacob Liberman, both influential authors and teachers. Behavioral optometrists are distinctly a minority in the field of optometry, but they can be found across the United States and worldwide.
Behavioral optometrists promise many benefits from this way of treating vision problems. Perhaps the foremost is that people can learn to live without the discomfort and bother of wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses. Behavioral optometry also focuses on children, particularly those with learning difficulties. These children can benefit from learning to train their eyes and so overcome reading problems due to inability to concentrate or inability to keep the eyes in place on the page. Behavioral optometry also tries to help patients deal with stress, so that vision training can lead to a more relaxed and healthy lifestyle. In addition, behavioral optometry has been used to develop the special visual acuity that is needed for sports; and some practitioners are trained to treat patients who have suffered vision trauma such as stroke, or to work with autistic or disabled children.
Behavioral optometry aims to treat the whole patient, not just correct his or her vision. The first step in an examination may be a wide-ranging series of tests and questions, geared to determine the patient's overall visual abilities. This term means not just how well the eyes read letters on a chart, but such broader areas of visual perception as hand-eye coordination and color perception. Behavioral optometrists will prescribe corrective lenses, but these are usually somewhat different from traditional glasses. The lenses are designed to relieve the stress caused by such close-focus work as reading or working at a computer. But for distance seeing, the lenses may not be as accurate as traditional lenses, since the behavioral optometrist seeks to teach the eyes to relearn distance vision skills that have atrophied. Many behavioral optometrists prescribe lenses that include a series of small prisms, which are supposed to help the eyes develop better vision patterns. Behavioral optometrists also practice vision therapy, in which the optometrist works closely with the patient in step-by-step exercises to help the eyes relax and relearn lost skills. These are not merely eye exercises, because exercising the muscles around the eye can fatigue them instead of strengthen them. The therapy might involve learning new skills such as juggling, drawing, dancing, or ball games, as well as relaxation techniques. The optometrist may also work with the patient to alter diet, sleep patterns, and lifestyle stress.
Research and general acceptance
Though behavioral optometrists are definitely a minority within the field of optometry, a body of research supports their methods. This can be found in professional journals such as Journal of Behavioral Optometry and Journal of Optometric Vision Development. Bates's method has been in use since the 1920s, and much anecdotal evidence attests to its efficacy, including the dramatic case of writer Aldous Huxley. Other patients and practitioners have written of their ability to function without glasses and overcome learning disabilities through behavioral optometry. And one of the major contentions of behavioral optometry is that conventional optometry does not cure the eye conditions it treats. Myopic patients are given glasses, and then a stronger pair of glasses, and then a stronger, as vision gradually worsens. Behavioral optometrists use this development as evidence that conventional optometry fails its patients.
Training and certification
In the United States, there are three major training institutions for behavioral optometry. The College of Optometrists and Vision Development offers courses and examinations leading to an international certificate in behavioral optometry. Clinical education workshops are offered by the Optometric Extension Program Foundation in Santa Ana, California. The Baltimore Academy of Behavioral Optometry offers in-depth coursework in behavioral optometry to qualified optometrists. Only people who already have a degree in optometry can take these courses. Technicians also work with behavioral optometrists. These technicians need have no specific educational background, but to become certified, they must work for 2,000 hours under a certified behavioral optometrist and pass a written and oral examination.
Ophthalmologist— A physician who specializes in treating diseases and disorders of the eye.
Optometrist— A professional who examines the eyes for vision defects in order to fit the patient with corrective lenses or prescribe other appropriate treatment.
Liberman, Jacob. Take Off Your Glasses and See. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.
Baltimore Academy of Behavioral Optometry. 16 Greenmeadow Drive, Suite 103. Timonium, MD 21093. (800) 447-0370.
College of Optometrists in Vision Development. 353 H. Street, Suite C. Chula Vista, CA 91910. (888) 268-3770.
Optometric Extension Program Foundation. 2912 South Daimler Street, Suite 100. Santa Ana, CA 92705. (949) 250-8070.