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Beyond Glasses


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:40 pm

With a greater percentage of people wearing glasses or contact lenses more than ever before, we’ve come to accept that corrective lenses (or Lasik surgery) is all we can do to manage a vision problem. A few behavioral changes may help, like using better lighting or changing the computer’s default font to something larger. But there is another way to address the imperfections in your vision. Integrative vision care, also called natural vision care, is a holistic approach to eye health and vision improvement that works not just on the mechanics of eyesight, but through a sea of variables that influence vision. An increasing number of eye doctors are learning this approach and deepening what it means to help people see better.

I recently visited Dr. Marc Grossman, a behavioral optometrist, acupuncturist, and natural vision educator, to learn about integrative vision care. Nothing else would likely have gotten me to an eye doctor for any number of years. Who wants their eyesight foibles reinforced? But rather than reprimand me for my neglect of vision check ups, he guided me through a fascinating hour similar to a patient’s first visit at his New Paltz office. Within a minute of our session, the first of several unique aspects to this approach revealed itself.

“Already I’m looking at things that I see,” he said as he scanned the way I stood and moved. “For one thing, you’re tilting your head to the side.” That observation may be related to vision, as people tend to tilt their heads to compensate for eyesight problems such as astigmatism. “That puts a bit more tension on the cleidomastoid muscle on one side,” he said, referring to a strap like muscle on each side of the neck that runs from behind the ear to the chest. Grossman explained that the body in many ways accommodates to eyesight needs—and not just the physical body, but the emotional and psychological self as well.

The integrative vision approach
I was a bit embarrassed to admit to Grossman that I had only thought of eyeballs as objects that mechanically take in the scenery as best they can. That’s partly right: Eyesight refers to how eyeballs collect light and form images. But their role is only one element in the bigger picture of vision. “Vision is our ability to take meaning from our environment,” he explains in one of his books, Greater Vision: A Comprehensive Program for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Clarity (coauthored with Vinton McCabe). “It is pervasive in everything we see, touch, and do. It is a reflection of our biases, our hopes, and our judgments, all in one package.” His training and practice in Chinese medicine enhances Grossman’s perspective that everything is interrelated, and his books are brimming with examples from his patients of how good vision depends on much more than good eyesight.

Like other tasks running in the brain, interpreting what we see is inextricably linked to other sensory input, thoughts, biases, memories, emotions, nutritional and health status, and just about every other aspect of being human. What’s more, a bounty of behavioral, psychological, and developmental studies have demonstrated how what a person reports to be seeing does not necessarily match what their eyes are capable of taking in.

Vision truly is a holistic activity. As such, visual problems are best treated through a holistic approach. “The integrative approach,” Grossman explains, “evaluates the person’s lifestyle, habits, diet, exercise routine, and stress management, along with the family history. It attempts to bring in the patient as an active partner in the program to improve or maintain eye health.” A treatment plan may include acupuncture, chiropractic, athletics, psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and other healing modalities, in combination with vision exercises.

Natural Vision improvement
If you’ve worn glasses since childhood, you’ve probably thought there’s nothing you can do but wear glasses all your life. But most people aren’t born with vision problems. Amazingly, only about 5 percent of Americans are born myopic (able to see well near, but not far), but the percentage gradually increases through childhood, to reach 40 percent by age 18. Adults, too, like those who use a computer for long hours at the workplace, complain of newly emerging vision problems. Some vision experts attribute those trends to the unrelenting hours of close-up work many of us do, without letting our eyes rest or gaze afar.

Ironically, glasses are also an accomplice. They often perpetuate, and even worsen, a vision problem. That’s because, like any neglected muscle, eye muscles that don’t have to work so hard (because the glasses are letting them off the hook) weaken over time. As a result, you become dependent on glasses, and on increasingly stronger ones. It’s such a commonplace strategy that we don’t suspect the “cure” is reinforcing the condition.

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