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Contact Lenses: Origins and Options

By Thaddeus Wontor, Southwest Health Optometrist

Have you ever wondered how the idea of contact lenses came to be? They can be a great option for people who wear glasses. Some people wear contacts for sports or outdoor activities, or even for specialized tasks such as SCUBA diving or motorcycle riding. Odds are, if there’s a task where glasses get in the way, contacts just might be the answer.

Human beings have been thinking about contact lenses ever since the days of Leonardo Da Vinci (circa the early 1500’s). But likely the first real success in contacts was the result of German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick. He fashioned a lens out of hand-blown glass to experiment with first on rabbits, and then with a handful of courageous volunteers. The lenses were predictably uncomfortable, but the seed had been planted.

Advancements continued to arrive over the following decades, especially with the arrival of modern-day plastics. One such material was PMMA, or polymethyl methacrylate. Using PMMA for contacts was in part credited to the observations of a field hospital surgeon during World War 1, who happened to routinely treat fighter pilots. He noted that windshield material that shattered and became embedded in the human eye resulted in very little inflammation – it was almost as if the body ignored the plastic being present. That material, the plastic in the plane’s cockpit windshield, was PMMA. Soon, most new contact lenses were being fashioned from the same material.

Fast forwarding almost a hundred years, we now have access to thousands of different contact lens designs, with a wide variety of characteristics to cover the unique needs of our patients. Lenses are becoming safer, cheaper, and more comfortable with each passing year. And while the majority of contact lens wearers use a soft, silicon hydrogel-based material, there is still a place for the hard plastic lenses of old. In fact, hard plastic lenses have been being used more and more again as the need for hard-to-fit eye shapes and different diseases require a more specialized approach to successful wear.

The majority of myopic (near-sighted) and hyperopic (far-sighted) eyes, both with and without mild to moderate amounts of astigmatism (a slight warping in the front surface of the cornea) can be fit with soft contact lenses.

Depending on the preference of the patient, contacts can be worn for different lengths of time. There are daily disposable (the lens is thrown away after a single use) to two-week or one month extended wear contacts (the lens is removed each night and disinfected, then worn again for a certain period).

There are also contact options to restore a measure of near vision for individuals suffering from presbyopia, or the age-related change of being unable to focus up close like they once did. Multi-focal contacts can provide limited freedom from readers and bifocals, but they are still a developing technology. Unfortunately, patients with larger amounts of astigmatism would not be good candidates for multifocal contacts, though we hope with future developments that this will change.

The future of contacts looks promising. Future advancements may include contacts that darken in sunlight, like photochromic glasses, or could potentially monitor a diabetic’s blood sugar levels constantly without the need for pricking fingertips. Other advances include ways of placing drugs into the eye slowly over time, allowing us new options for treating our glaucoma patients. And in regards to the “old-fashioned” plastic lenses, we now have vastly improved custom polymer lenses to manage a number of difficult eye conditions, such as keratoconus and dry eye syndrome.

So, if you wear glasses and it’s been a while since you thought about contacts, now may be a great time to reconsider! There may be a contact lens out there just for you.

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