Astigmatism and Eye Exercises

by Dr. Merrill J. Allen, Dr. Steven M. Beresford, Dr. Francis A. Young.


Astigmatism is a refractive error in which the eyeball and/or cornea and/or inner lens are warped, distorting and blurring the image on the retina. In severe cases, the distortion is like looking in a carnival mirror that makes people appear to be abnormally tall and thin or short and fat.

Astigmatism causes blurring at all distances and usually occurs in combination with other refractive errors. Many people are alarmed when the eye doctor tells them they have astigmatism, probably because they think they have some type of ‘stigma’. In fact, astigmatism seldom occurs as the only refractive error and in most cases, astigmatism is usually nothing more than a minor complication of myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), or presbyopia (loss of focusing power due to aging).


Traditional eye care is based on the unproven theory that astigmatism is caused by a genetically deformed eye socket. The prediction made by this theory is that the amount of astigmatism should remain constant throughout life because the shape of the eye socket doesn’t change. In fact, the amount of astigmatism and its axis (direction) often changes, especially after a neck injury where the person can suddenly develop astigmatism – often within a few hours.

The conclusion we have reached is that astigmatism can arise from several different causes. First, some cases of astigmatism are undoubtedly inherited, especially large amounts that were present during childhood. Second, it may result from a difficult birth in which the skull and eye sockets are permanently elongated as the baby is squeezed out. This type of person often has a long, narrow face and the astigmatism has a vertical axis. In most cases, however, astigmatism is simply caused by a bad posture with the head habitually tilted to one side.

What is the explanation? One of the visual system’s functions is to help maintain our sense of balance. Whether we’re sitting, standing, or moving, our eyes are constantly scanning the world around us for horizontal features because we must be aware of the horizontal at all times to avoid falling over. As an example of how important the horizontal scanning process is, you’ve probably noticed how easy it is to lose your sense of balance in a completely dark room.

The muscles that surround and move the eyeball, the extraocular muscles, are attached to the eyeball in such a way so that they facilitate the horizontal scanning process. When the head is habitually tilted to one side, usually the result of a bad posture or neck injury, the extraocular muscles adapt by pulling unequally, causing the eyeball and/or cornea to buckle and warp.

Astigmatism is probably the most common visual defect because few people have perfect posture. In most cases, the amount of astigmatism is small and doesn’t cause much blurring. On the other hand, people who read a lot with a major head tilt often have significant amounts of astigmatism combined with myopia. Astigmatism resulting from a tilted head is usually not permanent and can often be reduced simply by correcting the posture in conjunction with vision therapy eye exercises. If your astigmatism is getting worse, you should also try to reduce it by adapting to weaker lenses, typically old glasses from previous years.


The traditional method of treating astigmatism is with corrective lenses, which modify the light before it enters the eye so that objects can be seen clearly.

Surprisingly, no clinical or statistical studies have demonstrated the long-term safety or effectiveness of corrective lenses. All that is really known is that most people who wear them get worse and need stronger prescriptions every few years. It is also widely believed that corrective lenses cause dependency and make the eyes even weaker so they lose more of their natural focusing power.

Recent research suggests that corrective lenses may actually cause the eyeball to become deformed. In a series of important experiments, Dr. Earl Smith of the University of Houston College of Optometry fitted various types of corrective lenses on young rhesus monkeys with normal healthy vision. What he found was that monkeys fitted with corrective lenses used for astigmatism adapted to the lenses by developing astigmatism. When Dr. Smith removed the lenses, the astigmatism disappeared and the monkeys returned to normal!


As with other common visual problems, the basic strategy is to strengthen your eyes with vision therapy eye exercises and reduce your dependency on corrective lenses as much as possible. Here are our recommendations:

A) Low Astigmatism. Look in a mirror and see if you have a head tilt. Ask a friend to give you a second opinion. If you are habitually tilting your head, you should develop the habit of tilting it in the opposite direction for a few months. This will cause the extraocular muscles to adjust the force they exert on the eyeball as they adapt to the new head position. This should neutralize the astigmatism. You should also use vision therapy eye exercises to encourage the eye muscles to change their configuration.

It’s a good idea to make some reminder cards. For example, if you habitually tilt your head to the right, the card should say TILT HEAD LEFT. Put cards in prominent places around the house and in your car and at work. Whenever you look at a card, make sure your head is tilted in the new direction and stretch your neck muscles to reinforce the habit. Tilting your head in the new direction will feel strange at first but you’ll soon get used to it.

B) High Astigmatism. If your astigmatism is inherited or caused by a difficult birth, it’s often possible to improve the blurred vision with vision therapy eye exercises even if nothing can be done about the deformed eye socket. You should also check for a head tilt as described above and correct it if necessary. If the astigmatism is stable, we also recommend Lasik surgery or corneal therapy (orthokeratology).

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