Nearsightedness (aka myopia) is becoming the norm in many parts of the developed world. Believe it or not, 90 percent of college age students in South Korea now have glasses for myopia. While Asian nations are the worst when it comes to eye problems, other nations aren't doing much better.
What's causing this dramatic rise of nearsightedness around the world? Well, the obvious reason is that children nowadays spend more time indoors on computers and less time playing outdoors. Most doctors believe the lack of natural sunlight plus the dangerous effects of staring at screens all day are the two main reasons more children suffer from myopia nowadays.
With this huge increase in nearsighted cases, it's quite obvious that there'll also be a huge demand for contact lenses. Younger patients tend to prefer contact lenses over eyeglasses for both convenience and vanity.
Although contacts are quite convenient, many patients find the popular soft hydrogel contacts extremely uncomfortable. Developed in the 1970s, contacts made with hydrogels based on hydroxyethyl methacrylate (HEMA) were extremely popular due to their hydrophilic nature. The main problem people have with these contacts, however, is that they don't allow enough oxygen to naturally flow through the cornea. This tends to make patients' eyes extremely red and irritated. In serious cases, these contacts could actually lead to an eye condition known as corneal edema.
In fact, recent studies show that around 40 percent of people who try HEMA-based contacts find them so unbearable that they return to their eye doctor with eye complaints. About 20 percent of people who try HEMA contacts actually stop wearing them altogether and opt for eyeglasses.
To address this issue, contact lens manufacturers have been working to find a viable substitute for HEMA in contact lens design. In the 1990s, some designers tried using silicone-based polymers to increase the oxygen to the cornea. While these contacts did increase the oxygen flow, developers found that they were extremely hydrophobic and led to more cases of dry eyes.
Researchers at companies like Novartis and CooperVision were instrumental in increasing the wettability of silicone-based contacts. By experimenting with new molecules and treating silicone contacts with a layer of plasma, these researchers were able to increase these contacts average water content to 80 percent.
Of course, these innovations will make contact lenses more comfortable, but eye doctors don't want to stop there. Many contact lens manufacturers believe they can incorporate the latest in medical technology into their designs to both better understand and treat children with myopia.
For example, Dr. Donald Mutti, who works as an optometrist at Ohio State University, is now leading a three-year clinical trial to see if specially designed contact lenses could actually cure myopia in seven-year-olds. Dr. Mutti believes certain contacts could slow down the elongation of the eyes, which would stop nearsightedness in its tracks.
In addition to Mutti's study, many tech companies are getting interested in the possibilities for "smart contacts." These technically enhanced contact lenses could actually be able to monitor a user's blood glucose levels, sleep patterns, and even release medications on command.
The demand for comfortable contacts is only set to increase exponentially as the myopia epidemic increases. Hopefully the high-tech contacts of tomorrow will be able to effectively address the woes of youth nearsightedness in the years to come.