Astigmatism Can Make Lights Appear Distorted

Optometrist checking patient's eyes

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It's not a black and blue (or white and gold) dress. But a viral post made people seriously question their eyesight. In 2019, user @unusualfacts6 posted to Twitter, claiming people could determine if they have astigmatism based on how they perceive light, demonstrated by two photos. So, what is astigmatism? Here's what you need to know about the eye condition and how it's diagnosed and treated.

In the first Twitter photo, the light from the brake lights and traffic sign are distorted, stretching into a wide, starburst shape. Those lines are supposed to show how people with astigmatism see the light.

And in the Twitter second photo, the lights from the traffic stop form a softer halo shape, which is supposed to represent how people without astigmatism see the light.

The tweet has amassed over 1,400 responses, including from plenty of people convinced that they have the condition.

What Is Astigmatism?

According to the American Optometric Association, astigmatism occurs when the cornea is irregularly shaped. Because the cornea covers your eye, its distorted shape causes light to focus incorrectly in the retina, leading to blurred vision and headaches.

"Astigmatism merely means the cornea is not a perfect sphere," Steven Shanbom, MD, a Detroit-based ophthalmologist, told Health. "Very few people actually have a perfect spherical eyeball and will have small degrees of astigmatism, but it doesn't become clinically relevant until it's curved to a greater extent."

Dr. Shanbom explained that astigmatism vision problems happen when light is focused more on one meridian or axis than the other. 

So, if a light shone down on a sphere, it would bend equally in all directions. But with a cornea that's not spherical, the light turns in unequal directions, which can cause distorted vision

But although it distorts vision, astigmatism is not unusual.

"Having astigmatism is incredibly common," Dr. Shanbom explained. "It's less common to have a perfectly spherical eye."

According to the National Eye Institute, more than 150 million people in the United States have a refractive error, making it difficult to see clearly. As per the National Library of Medicine, astigmatism makes up about 13% of those refractive errors.

Diagnosing and Treating Astigmatism

So, how accurate is that viral photo on Twitter? Well, Dr. Shanbom said that while the picture is "a little extreme," it might resemble what someone with astigmatism sees when they look at a traffic light. 

"People can have distortions like that, especially at night," noted Dr. Shanbom. "If you have uncorrected astigmatism, you can see some star bursting of light like we see in the first photo."

Still, Dr. Shanbom added that the photo is not an accurate way to diagnose astigmatism. According to the National Eye Institute, if you have astigmatism, you may notice symptoms such as:

  • Blurry vision
  • Squinting your eyes to see
  • Having trouble seeing at night
  • Straining your eyes
  • Headaches

But some people with mild astigmatism may not even notice any symptoms. So, making an appointment for an eye exam with your healthcare provider can help determine whether you have the eye condition.

And if you find out that you have astigmatism, there's nothing to worry about, Dr. Shanbom added. Per the National Eye Institute, for people with extreme astigmatism, treatments include:

A Quick Review

Astigmatism is an eye condition that caused by an irregularly shaped cornea, causing lights to appear distorted. If you have astigmatism, glasses, contact lenses, or surgery can help treat symptoms, which may cause headaches if you strain your eyes too hard to see.

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