Myopia is the medical term for nearsightedness, a word you’ve probably heard more often. Being medically myopic, or nearsighted, means that you can see clearly when looking at objects nearby, but that distant objects appear blurry.
Scientists estimate that by 2050, half of the world—about 4.75 billion people—will have myopia. This eye condition is the most common cause of distance-related vision problems.
What Does It Mean to Have Myopia?
Myopia is a kind of refractive error—an eye disorder that affects the way light refracts within the eye.
In an eye without myopia, light is focused onto the surface of the retina, and an image is conveyed to the brain via the optic nerve.
An eye with myopia has a bit of trouble focusing light in the same way. That’s because a myopic eye is typically elongated, rather than resembling a perfect sphere. Or, its cornea may be a bit more steeply curved than normal.
These myopic aspects of the eye cause light to focus on a point in front of the retina, rather than directly on it. And light that doesn’t hit the retina produces an unclear image in the brain.
Types of Myopia
Most people with myopia have a version that can be measured and addressed at a routine eye exam. Their eye prescription will tell them the severity of their myopia, which appears on the prescription as a negative number. Anything from approximately -0.50 to -5.00 falls in the standard range for nearsightedness.
However, there are other kinds of myopia that require more thorough monitoring and treatment.
High Myopia: When myopia requires anything less than about -5.00 diopters of refractive correction—so, if you’re seeing -6.75 on your prescription, for example—it’s said to be high myopia.
High myopia causes more severe vision impairment, and also increases the risk of serious eye conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts, and retinal detachment.
Degenerative Myopia: Also known as pathological myopia and progressive myopia, degenerative myopia occurs when the shape of the eye is elongated enough that the sclera (the white part of your eye) and retina become thinner.
This condition also increases the risk of retinal disorders (including the growth of abnormal blood vessels), glaucoma, and cataracts.
Both high myopia and degenerative myopia can be diagnosed at an eye exam, and should be tracked and treated according to your eye doctor’s instructions.
Bilateral Myopia: Bilateral myopia simply means that both eyes are nearsighted. They needn’t be equally nearsighted, though—it’s perfectly normal for each eye to have different prescriptions.
We know what you’re thinking: If myopia is the medical term for nearsighted, then what’s the medical term for farsighted? The answer (sadly) isn’t youropia, but hyperopia.
In an eye with hyperopia, light becomes focused behind the eye’s retina—it goes too far, rather than stopping up short. The result is that far-away objects are clear and crisp, while nearby objects are blurred.
Is Nearsighted the Same as Short-sighted?
The meaning of nearsighted in America is the same as the meaning of short-sighted in the UK. So, don’t be offended if you’re in London and someone asks if you’re short-sighted—they’re not questioning your planning skills, they’re probably just curious about your glasses!
Many people with myopia discover they have it when it becomes difficult to make out writing on a blackboard or read signs from far away. The following symptoms could indicate nearsightedness:
- Blurred vision when trying to discern faraway objects or writing
- A need to squint to make your vision temporarily clearer
- Eye strain and eye fatigue
- Increased vision impairment at night
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to get your eyes checked by a professional. They’ll be able to tell you whether you have myopia and, if so, how to correct it.
What Causes Nearsightedness?
Doctors haven’t yet isolated exactly what causes myopia. We know that it runs in families—you’re more likely to be nearsighted if one or both of your parents are, too.
But, in addition to genetics, environmental factors seem to play a role. Children who spend less time outside appear to be more prone to developing myopia, whereas those who spend more time outdoors have their risk of myopia reduced.
Scientists speculate that a lack of exposure to bright sunlight may be what’s slowing the progression of myopia, but they don’t know exactly how this relationship functions.
A January 2021 study supports this theory, showing that COVID lockdowns—and the increase in time spent indoors by children ages 6–8—upped the prevalence of myopia by 1.4 to 3 times.
How Do You Test for Myopia?
An eye doctor can test for myopia during a standard eye exam.
First, they’ll test your unassisted visual acuity by having you read lines from a Snellen chart—that’s the big poster with rows of letters and numbers that get smaller as they go down the page.
They’ll also have you look through a tool called a phoropter, which is fitted with several lenses. The doctor will lower sets of lenses in front of each of your eyes and ask you which lenses help you to see more clearly.
They may use a couple more specialized tools, such as a retinoscope and/or autorefractor, to determine the strength of your eye prescription. Both of these tools shine a light into the eye and help the doctor to assess the degree of your myopia.
There are a multitude of treatment options available for myopia, all of which should correct your nearsighted vision and increase your quality of life.
For many people with nearsightedness, wearing prescription glasses is a convenient form of treatment. It also allows you to experiment with your sense of style—are you someone who springs for upswept cat-eye frames, or do you go for distinguished rectangular ones?
Depending on the severity of your myopia and how often it disrupts your daily life, you may opt to wear glasses full-time or only when you need to read something far away. Your doctor should be able to advise you on this front, too!
Prescription contact lenses are another type of corrective lenses that treat myopia. They’re worn directly on top of the eye and can be changed daily, weekly, biweekly, or monthly, depending on what kind of lens you prefer. If you have your prescription or your eye doctor’s contact information handy, you can order contact lenses online.
Orthokeratology involves wearing a set of “hard” contact lenses to bed each night. As you sleep, the lenses gradually reshape the cornea of your eye to offset your myopia.
Once you stop putting these contacts in at night, however, their benefits will diminish as your corneas return to their original shape.
Orthokeratology is a more intensive treatment than picking out glasses or contacts, and should only be performed as advised by your eye doctor.
Surgeries such as LASIK and PRK are growing in popularity as treatments for myopia. Both of these procedures entail changing the shape of the eye’s cornea to correct nearsightedness.
If a person’s cornea is too thin for these surgical procedures, or their myopia is very severe, they may have artificial corrective lenses implanted in their eyes. These lenses, called phakic intraocular lenses, are positioned in front of the eye’s natural lens.
Eye surgery should only be performed by a qualified ophthalmologist, and it tends to be the most costly way to address myopia.
Myopia Control and Prevention
Although it’s possible for myopia to worsen as you age, it typically progresses the most in childhood and adolescence, then levels out once you’re about 20 years old. After this point, your eyes are pretty set in their shape, barring other issues.
It’s a good idea to get your eyes checked regularly to monitor your myopia (and to ensure your eyes are healthy). These eye exams will keep your prescription up-to-date as well.
Your prescription might shift slightly, but drastic changes in your distance-vision would be considered abnormal, and should be looked into by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
Can Myopia be Prevented?
Research around controlling myopia in childhood is ongoing. It’s thought that encouraging kids to spend more time outside is one possible way to lower their risk of developing nearsightedness. Other potential methods include:
Orthokeratology: Using orthokeratology before myopia progresses can slow down the onset of nearsightedness in children. It’s thought that wearing the lenses at night keeps the eye from elongating as much as it would otherwise, so that myopia’s development is hindered.
Low-dose atropine: Some pediatric ophthalmologists have prescribed low-dose atropine eyedrops to try and slow the progression of myopia in children.
Studies have shown that these drops can indeed reduce the speed at which myopia develops, but further research is needed to examine how the drops work and why they may not be as effective for certain people.
Dual-focus contact lenses: Specialized dual-focus contact lenses have also been found to slow the progression of myopia in children when worn regularly.
The Takeaway? Being Nearsighted is Normal.
Having myopia is generally nothing to worry about—it’s totally normal to be nearsighted. In fact, we think the science of being nearsighted is as fascinating as the solutions for it are stylish.
And here’s more good news: As myopia continues to affect more and more people across the globe, you’ll be primed to explain how it works (and maybe give them some tips on shopping for glasses).