Updated on 

January 22, 2022

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Astigmatism: Causes & Treatment

What Is Astigmatism?

Astigmatism causes blurred vision at all distances.

It is the most common refractive error in the U.S. and affects 36.2% of Americans.1 Refractive errors are caused by the eye's inability to focus light directly to the retina.

astigmatism eye defect

Eyes should focus light rays to the center. With astigmatism, the eye focuses light at different points — including the front and back of the retina.

Astigmatism can affect one or both eyes. It can also occur with other refractive errors:

  • Myopic astigmatism. When you have astigmatism and myopia (nearsightedness) in one eye. It happens when both the cornea and lens focus light at the front of the retina.
  • Hyperopic astigmatism. When you have astigmatism and hyperopia (farsightedness) in one eye. It results from the cornea and lens focusing light behind the retina.
  • Regular astigmatism is when the two curvatures (called meridians) of astigmatism are perpendicular to each other (90 degrees apart). Most people with astigmatism have regular astigmatism.
  • Irregular astigmatism is when the two meridians of astigmatism are not perpendicular. Irregular astigmatism is not common.

Causes of Astigmatism

Astigmatism is the result of an irregular curvature of your eyes. This irregularity can occur in a couple of ways:

  • Your cornea, which is the clear covering over the surface of your eye, has an irregular shape. Instead of a symmetrically round shape (like a basketball), your cornea is shaped like an egg. Corneal astigmatism is the most common form of astigmatism. It causes an abnormal curvature of the cornea.
  • Your natural lens, which sits behind the colored iris, changes with age. If the curvature of the lens changes, you can develop astigmatism. This is called lenticular astigmatism.
astigmatism sphere

The causes of regular astigmatism are complex, but current research shows that your genes influence the development of astigmatism. Irregular astigmatism results from an eye injury, eye surgery, or corneal diseases such as keratoconus.

Keratoconus is an eye disease that causes irregular and often high amounts of astigmatism. This disease also causes your cornea to develop a cone-like shape, which is how keratoconus gets its name.

This condition usually starts after puberty and stabilizes around 40 years of age. Studies show that genetics and external factors (like excessive eye rubbing and eye allergies) both play roles in keratoconus. There are several treatments for keratoconus. They range from keratoconus contact lenses to surgical options such as corneal implants, collagen cross-linking, and corneal transplants. 

Approximately one out of three people have astigmatism.

Symptoms of Astigmatism

If you have astigmatism, you may notice symptoms such as blurry vision far away and close up, fluctuating vision, eye strain, and headaches. You may also notice difficulty seeing at night, including glare and starburst patterns around lights. Your symptoms will depend on the severity of your eyeglass prescription.

When you look at your eyeglass prescription, you may see numbers written under “cylinder” and “axis.” The cylinder refers to how strong your astigmatism correction is. The axis refers to the location of astigmatism on your cornea. You may also see the word diopters (D), which are the units your eye doctor uses to measure your prescription. 

We can categorize your astigmatism by strength:

  • Mild astigmatism is 1.00 D or less. 
  • Moderate astigmatism ranges from 1.00 to 2.00 D.
  • Severe astigmatism ranges from 2.00 to 4.00 D.
  • Extreme astigmatism is anything above 4.00 D.

Patients with mild astigmatism may not notice symptoms and have decent vision without any correction. Patients with moderate astigmatism and higher usually notice problems with their vision and require eyeglasses or contacts. Most people use their corrective lenses full-time since they help with both distance and near vision.

How to Correct Astigmatism

For this article, we will be focusing on treatments for regular astigmatism, not irregular astigmatism. There are a variety of treatment options for astigmatism:

Eyeglasses and Contact Lenses

Eyeglasses and contact lenses are the most common way to correct astigmatism. There are a variety of options to choose from. If you're interested in these options check out our review of the best contacts for astigmatism.

Orthokeratology (ortho-k)

Orthokeratology lenses are rigid gas permeable contact lenses you use while sleeping. These lenses temporarily reshape your corneas overnight. You remove the contacts after waking up and can see fairly well for the day without any glasses.

Your corneas return to their original shape after a day or two, so you will need to use the lenses each night. Although orthokeratology mainly corrects myopia, this treatment can also correct moderate amounts of astigmatism.

Refractive Lens Exchange

A refractive lens exchange removes the natural lens in your eye, which is the same procedure as cataract surgery. The surgeon inserts a toric intraocular lens, which is a particular implant that corrects astigmatism. This option is better for older patients who have higher astigmatism corrections and may develop cataracts soon. 

Phakic Intraocular Lens Implant

This procedure is typically reserved for patients with high myopia, but can also correct prescriptions with myopia and astigmatism. In contrast with a refractive lens exchange, a phakic intraocular lens procedure keeps your natural lens.

Instead, the surgeon inserts the implant in front of your natural lens, which is called a posterior chamber phakic lens. Or, the surgeon may choose an anterior chamber phakic lens, which is placed in front of the iris. 

Laser Refractive Surgery

PRK and LASIK are laser eye surgeries that can treat astigmatism. Laser surgery can correct up to about 6.00 D of astigmatism. If you also have myopia or hyperopia, laser eye surgery may only be able to correct a lower amount of astigmatism.

If you have higher astigmatism and thin corneas, you may not be eligible for laser refractive surgery. You can consult your eye surgeon to see if you are a candidate for LASIK or PRK.

Astigmatism FAQs

Can astigmatism go away?

Astigmatism cannot go away on its own. A lens implant, glasses, contacts, PRK, LASIK, refractive lens exchange, or ortho-k are the only way to correct this condition.

Can astigmatism get worse?

Astigmatism can get worse over time. However, it tends to stay the same after age 25.

What degree of astigmatism requires glasses?

If you have minor astigmatism and no other refractive errors, glasses may not be necessary. If you are unsure whether you have another vision problem or not, visit your eye doctor for an eye exam.

What are the best glasses for astigmatism?

Trivex, polycarbonate, and high-index lenses are best for severe cases of astigmatism.

10 Cited Research Articles
  1. "Prevalence of Refractive Error in the United States, 1999-2004." JAMA Network.
  2. Alió, Jorge L., et al. “Refractive Lens Exchange in Modern Practice: When and When Not to Do It?Eye and Vision, vol. 1, no. 10, 10 Dec. 2014, doi:10.1186/s40662-014-0010-2.
  3. Cason, John B., et al. “Phakic Intraocular Lenses.” EyeWiki, 5 Apr. 2017, eyewiki.aao.org/Phakic_Intraocular_Lenses.
  4. Gordon-Shaag, Ariela, et al. “The Genetic and Environmental Factors for Keratoconus.” BioMed Research International, vol. 2015, 17 May 2015, pp. 1–19., doi:10.1155/2015/795738.
  5. Kamiya, Kazutaka, et al. “Three-year follow-up of posterior chamber toric phakic intraocular lens implantation for moderate to high myopic astigmatism.PloS one vol. 8,2 : e56453. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056453.
  6. Lopes, Margarida C., et al. “Identification of a candidate gene for astigmatism.Investigative ophthalmology & visual science vol. 54,2 1260-7. 1 Feb. 2013, doi:10.1167/iovs.12-10463
  7. Miraftab, Mohammad, et al. “Two-year results of femtosecond assisted LASIK versus PRK for different severity of astigmatism.Journal of current ophthalmology vol. 30,1 48-53. 9 Oct. 2017, doi:10.1016/j.joco.2017.09.003.
  8. Nanavaty, Mayank A., and Sheraz M. Daya. “Refractive Lens Exchange versus Phakic Intraocular Lenses.Current Opinion in Ophthalmology, vol. 23, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 54–61., doi:10.1097/icu.0b013e32834cd5d1.
  9. Shah, Rupal L., and Jeremy A. Guggenheim. “Genome-Wide Association Studies for Corneal and Refractive Astigmatism in UK Biobank Demonstrate a Shared Role for Myopia Susceptibility Loci.” Human Genetics, vol. 137, no. 11-12, 10 Oct. 2018, pp. 881–896., doi:10.1007/s00439-018-1942-8.
  10. Stambolian, Dwight. “Genetic Susceptibility and Mechanisms for Refractive Error.Clinical Genetics, vol. 84, no. 2, 10 June 2013, pp. 102–108., doi:10.1111/cge.12180.
Melody Huang is an optometrist and freelance health writer. Through her writing, Dr. Huang enjoys educating patients on how to lead healthier and happier lives. She also has an interest in Eastern medicine practices and learning about integrative medicine. When she’s not working, Dr. Huang loves reviewing new skin care products, trying interesting food recipes, or hanging with her adopted cats.
Author: Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.  | UPDATED January 22, 2022
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