Short-sightedness, known medically as myopia, is a common vision problem. If you’re short-sighted, you won’t be able to focus on distant objects, but will be able to see close objects clearly. Another name for short-sightedness is near-sightedness.
When you look at something, light rays from the object pass into your eye through your cornea (the clear structure at the front of your eye). These then pass through your lens, towards your retina at the back of your eye. In a healthy eye, your cornea and lens bend the light to focus it on your retina. Your cornea focuses the light towards your retina and your lens ‘fine tunes’ the focusing of this light.
Having short-sightedness means you can't focus on distant objects. This may be because your cornea is too curved or your eyeball is too long. This makes it more difficult for your eyes to focus light directly on your retina. If the light rays aren’t clearly focused on your retina, the objects you see will seem fuzzy or blurred. Close up objects won't look blurry, because the light rays enter your eye at a slight angle. This means they focus on your retina properly.
Short-sightedness is very common and tends to run in families. It usually starts developing between the ages of eight and 12. Because your eyes continue to grow during childhood, short-sightedness usually occurs before the age of 20.
A dioptre (D) is a measurement of the focusing power of a lens. Short-sightedness of up to 3D is termed as mild degree, 3D to 6D is moderate degree and 6D or over is high degree. About one in every 20 children have mild short-sightedness. By adulthood, about one in four adults are short-sighted.
If you’re short-sighted, you will be able to see close objects clearly, but distant objects will appear fuzzy or blurred. You might find that you narrow your eyes to make far away objects seem clearer.
Young children may not realise they have blurred vision. Signs that your child may be short-sighted include:
Other symptoms may include eyestrain and sometimes headaches, but this is uncommon.
If you develop short-sightedness during your childhood or teenage years, you will need to change your glasses or contact lenses often. Short-sightedness will usually stop progressing in your early 20s.
There are many reasons why you might develop short-sightedness. Some of these reasons are listed below.
If you're straining to see things in the distance, you should book an appointment with an optometrist (a registered health professional who examines eyes, tests sight and dispenses glasses and contact lenses) to have your eyes tested.
In order to diagnose short-sightedness, your optometrist will usually ask you to read a standard chart (called a Snellen chart) from a distance of six metres. The chart has large letters at the top and small letters at the bottom.
It's important to have regular eye tests. As well as diagnosing any vision problems, they can reveal other serious illnesses, such as glaucoma (an eye condition caused by a build-up of pressure in the eye), diabetes or high blood pressure. Having an eye examination is an important part of looking after your health. You should have an eye examination every two years, even if you have no problems with your vision.
You may need to have eye examinations more often as you get older or if you have a:
See your optometrist if you’re concerned about your vision or your existing eye condition seems to have changed.
Eye examinations are usually quick and painless, and for some people, they are free. Ask your optometrist or GP for more advice.
Short-sightedness can usually be corrected by wearing glasses or contact lenses.
Concave lenses – in a pair of glasses or contact lenses – help focus light more precisely on your retina. If you're mildly short-sighted, you may only need to wear glasses or contact lenses occasionally, such as when you're driving or watching TV.
Contact lenses tend to be more expensive than glasses, and you need to be comfortable touching your eyes to use them. You will need to keep them clean and some types need to be maintained in a particular way. A popular type of contact lens is daily disposables which you wear for one day and then throw away. You don't need to clean or store these lenses.
Glasses are usually recommended for children. They may also be more suitable than contact lenses for older people. Your optometrist will discuss with you what options are available.
Laser refractive surgery
Laser refractive surgery involves small alterations being made to your cornea using a laser, so that light rays are correctly focused onto your retina. To treat short-sightedness, the centre of your cornea is made flatter by removing more tissue from the centre than from the edge.
There are various types of laser refractive surgery, which differ according to how your surgeon gains access to your cornea. These include:
Laser eye surgery works very well for most people. However, there is a chance you may not experience the improvement in your eyesight that you expected and need further treatment.
There are some risks associated with laser refractive surgery, including infection of your cornea, symptoms of a dry eye, distorted vision and problems with the flap that is made in your cornea during certain types of laser eye surgery. If you choose to have laser refractive surgery, it's important that you consider the benefits and risks of the operation before you go ahead. You should also make sure that it's carried out by a trained professional.
Laser refractive surgery isn't suitable for everyone and you will need to talk to an ophthalmic surgeon to find out if it's right for you. It may be helpful to write down a list of questions or enquiries to take with you to your first assessment.
Intraocular lens insertion
Lens implants, which are now frequently used, can be categorised into two main types. There are those where the natural lens of your eye is retained. This is often referred to as a ‘Phakic’ contact lens implant or implantable contact lenses (ICL's). There are also those where the natural lens of your eye is replaced.
If you’re severely short-sighted, some types of laser refractive surgery (such as LASIK) may not be suitable. Phakic ICL's may be a better option for you to try. Laser surgery is also permanent and can’t be reversed, but it’s possible to remove or replace a Phakic ICL.
There are some risks and complications associated with intraocular lens replacement. Your ophthalmic surgeon will usually only suggest it if you’re severely short-sighted or unable to wear glasses or contact lenses, for example, if you have a disability.
In this operation, several tiny cuts are made in your cornea to flatten it. This changes your cornea’s focusing power, so that light rays fall more precisely on your retina. This is an older treatment and it has largely been replaced by laser surgery.
Another procedure for the correction of short-sightedness is the insertion of intracorneal rings. The rings are designed to flatten your cornea. Your surgeon will make a small cut in your cornea to fit the ring. This is still a relatively new procedure and complications are still not yet fully understood.
Produced by Alice Rossiter, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
Bupa's range of Health Cash Plans allow you to claim money back for ongoing costs such as optical and dental treatments. Read more on Bupa Health Cash Plan or call 0500 000 125 quoting ref. 4096.
You can't put a value on your health. Bupa Health Assessments help you identify any current or potential health risks, meaning you can take action now. Compare our range of health assessments or call 0845 600 3458 quoting ref. HFS100.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Help with everyday costs