Treatment of amblyopia, or lazy eye, with painless eyedrops may be preferable to the conventional eyepatch approach, researchers say. The most common cause of visual impairment in children, amblyopia is estimated to affect up to 3 percent of kids in the U.S. Patching the unaffected eye forces the lazy eye to work harder at focusing. But children often resist the patch, which can irritate the skin and elicit teasing from their peers. The new findings, published in the March issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology, suggest that eyedrops containing the drug atropine, given once a day, represent an attractive alternative.

Michael X. Repka of Johns Hopkins University and colleagues studied 419 children ages six and under who had been diagnosed with moderate amblyopia. Roughly half received the eye drops (which temporarily blur vision in the healthy eye), while the others were asked to wear the eye patch for a given number of hours each day. The researchers measured each child's visual acuity at the start of the study, and at five, 16 and 26 weeks of treatment. Improvement in both groups was comparable, with about three quarters of the patients exhibiting improved visual acuity in the lazy eye. Parents of the children who received the eyedrops reported higher satisfaction with the treatment, however. "With atropine, you simply put the drop in once in the morning and there's no more monitoring of the child for the day," Repka notes. "With the patch, children have to be continuously monitored since they often remove the patch."

"Despite the advantages of atropine," Repka adds, "our data suggests that ophthalmologists generally prescribe patching 97 percent of the time." Although the results obtained using the two treatment methods appear similar so far, the team does plan to follow the study participants until April 2003 to assess the long-term effects of patching versus eyedrops.