Astigmatism is an optical defect in which vision is blurred due to the inability of the optics of the eye to focus a point object into a sharp focused image on the retina. This may be due to an irregular or toric curvature of the cornea or lens. The two types of astigmatism are regular and irregular. Irregular astigmatism is often caused by a corneal scar or scattering in the crystalline lens, and cannot be corrected by standard spectacle lenses, but can be corrected by contact lenses. Regular astigmatism arising from either the cornea or crystalline lens can be corrected by a toric lens. A toric surface resembles a section of the surface of an American football or a doughnut where there are two regular radii, one smaller than the other one. This optical shape gives rise to regular astigmatism in the eye.
The refractive error of the astigmatic eye stems from a difference in degree of curvature refraction of the two different meridians (i.e., the eye has different focal points in different planes.) For example, the image may be clearly focused on the retina in the horizontal (sagittal) plane, but not in the vertical (tangential) plane. Astigmatism causes difficulties in seeing fine detail, and in some cases vertical lines (e.g., walls) may appear to the patient to be tilted. The astigmatic optics of the human eye can often be corrected by spectacles, hard contact lenses or contact lenses that have a compensating optic, cylindrical lens (i.e. a lens that has different radii of curvature in different planes), or refractive surgery.
Based on axis of the principal meridians
- Regular astigmatism – principal meridians are perpendicular.
- With-the-rule astigmatism – the vertical meridian is steepest (a rugby ball or American football lying on its side).
- Against-the-rule astigmatism – the horizontal meridian is steepest (a rugby ball or American football standing on its end)
- Oblique astigmatism – the steepest curve lies in between 120 and 150 degrees and 30 and 60 degrees.
- Irregular astigmatism – principal meridians are not perpendicular.
In with-the-rule astigmatism, a minus cylinder is placed in the horizontal axis to correct the refractive error. Adding a minus cylinder in the horizontal axis makes the horizontal axis "steeper" (or better: makes the vertical axis "less steep") which makes both axes equally "steep". In against-the-rule astigmatism, a plus cylinder is added in the horizontal axis (or a minus cylinder in the vertical axis).
Children tend to have with-the-rule astigmatism and elderly people tend to have against-the-rule astigmatism.
Axis is always recorded as an angle in degrees, between 0 and 180 degrees in a counter-clockwise direction. Both 0 and 180 degrees lie on a horizontal line at the level of the centre of the pupil, and as seen by an observer, 0 lies on the right of both eyes.
Based on focus of the principal meridians
With accommodation relaxed:
- Simple hyperopic astigmatism – first focal line is on retina, while the second is located behind the retina.
- Simple myopic astigmatism – first focal line is in front of the retina, while the second is on the retina.
- Compound hyperopic astigmatism – both focal lines are located behind the retina.
- Compound myopic astigmatism – both focal lines are located in front of the retina.
- Mixed astigmatism – focal lines are on both sides of the retina (straddling the retina).
Astigmatism occurs due to the irregular shape of the cornea or the lens inside the eye. The cornea and lens are primarily responsible for properly focusing light entering your eyes allowing you to see things clearly.
The curvature of the cornea and lens causes light entering the eye to be bent in order to focus it precisely on the retina at the back of the eye. In astigmatism, the surface of the cornea or lens has a somewhat different curvature in one direction than another. In the case of the cornea, instead of having a round shape like a basketball, the surface of the cornea is more like a football. As a result, the eye is unable to focus light rays to a single point causing vision to be out of focus at any distance.
Sometimes astigmatism may develop following an eye injury or eye surgery. There is also a relatively rare condition called keratoconus where the cornea becomes progressively thinner and cone shaped. This results in a large amount of astigmatism resulting in poor vision that cannot be clearly corrected with spectacles. Keratoconus usually requires contact lenses for clear vision, and it may eventually progress to a point where a corneal transplant is necessary.
Persons with astigmatism have several options available to regain clear vision. They include:
laser and other refractive surgery procedures
Eyeglasses are a common form of correction for persons with astigmatism.
Eyeglasses are the primary choice of correction for persons with astigmatism. They will contain a special cylindrical lens prescription to compensate for the astigmatism. This provides for additional lens power in only specific meridians of the lens. An example of a prescription for astigmatism for one eye would be -1.00 -1.25 X 180. The middle number (-1.25) is the lens power for correction of the astigmatism. The "X 180" designates the placement (axis) of the lens power. The first number (-1.00) indicates that this prescription also includes a correction for nearsightedness in addition to astigmatism.
Generally, a single vision lens is prescribed to provide clear vision at all distances. However, for patients over about age 40 who have the condition called presbyopia, a bifocal or progressive addition lens may be needed. These provide different lens powers to see clearly in the distance and to focus effectively for near vision work.
A wide variety of lens types and frame designs are now available for patients of all ages. Eyeglasses are no longer just a medical device that provides needed vision correction. Eyeglass frames are available in a many shapes, sizes, colors and materials that not only allow for correction of vision, but also enhance appearance.
For some individuals, contact lenses can offer better vision than eyeglasses. They may provide clearer vision and a wider field of view. However, since contact lenses are worn directly on the eyes, they require regular cleaning and care to safeguard eye health.
Soft contact lenses conform to the shape of the eye, therefore standard soft lenses may not be effective in correcting astigmatism. However, special toric soft contact lenses are available to provide a correction for many types of astigmatism. Because rigid gas permeable contact lenses maintain their regular shape while on the cornea, they offer an effective way to compensate for the cornea’s irregular shape and improve vision for persons with astigmatism and other refractive errors.
Orthokeratology (Ortho-K) involves the fitting of a series of rigid contact lenses to reshape the cornea, the front outer cover of the eye. The contact lenses are worn for limited periods, such as overnight, and then removed. Persons with moderate amounts of astigmatism may be able to temporarily obtain clear vision without lenses for most of their daily activities. Orthokeratology does not permanently improve vision and if you stop wearing the retainer lenses, your vision may return to its original condition.
Astigmatism can also be corrected by reshaping the cornea using a highly focused laser beam of light. Two commonly used procedures are photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) and laser in situ keratomileusis (LASIK).
PRK removes tissue from the superficial and inner layers of the cornea. LASIK does not remove tissue from the surface of the cornea, but only from its inner layer. To do this, a section of outer corneal surface is cut and folded back to expose the inner tissue. Then a laser is used to remove the precise amount of tissue needed and the flap of outer tissue is placed back in position to heal. Both procedures allow light to focus on the retina by altering the shape of the cornea.
Individuals with astigmatism have a wide range of options to correct their vision problem. In consultation with your optometrist, you can select the treatment that best meets your visual and lifestyle needs.