The Bates method, popularized in the early twentieth century by ophthalmologist William Horatio Bates, involves the use of therapeutic eye exercises. Bates claims these exercises will correct vision problems, thus alleviating the need for glasses or contact lenses. Patients practice eye exercises aimed at strengthening and training their eye muscles in an effort to overcome such problems as farsightedness (hyperopia), nearsightedness (myopia), and astigmatism.
The method was devised by Bates, who was born in 1860 in Newark, New Jersey. In 1885, he received his medical degree and began practicing in New York City. Over the years, he began to notice that eye conditions like myopia, which is caused by a refractive error, could become better or worse for no apparent reason. Based on this observation, he began to question a basic tenet of traditional ophthalmology, which held that once a person had a refractive error like myopia, the only way to correct it was by wearing glasses.
While traditional ophthalmologists believed that the lens was responsible for the eye's focus, Bates maintained
At this point, Bates broke from his counterparts and began focusing his attention on the muscles surrounding the eye. He came to view eye problems as a result of poor evolution, believing that the eye had not kept up with human progress and had not evolved to allow reading. He also blamed problems on artificial light, which kept the eyes working longer hours each day than they were intended to. Bates developed a series of eye exercises to retrain the optic muscles to solve this evolutionary glitch.
Bates believed that eye strain caused vision to deteriorate, and his treatment was simple: like any other muscles, the eye muscles need periods of rest and exercise in order to achieve optimal performance. He focused on the functioning of the six small muscles that control the eye's shape. When they become tense, they gradually grow weak and result in nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, or "lazy eye."
The Bates method received acclaim several years after Bates's death (1931), when author Aldous Huxley boasted that after two months on the Bates program, he went from being almost blind to being able to read without wearing glasses.
An advantage of the Bates method is that the treatment is relaxing. Also, if patients stick to the routine and eye improvement is gained, they may benefit by being able to discard their corrective lenses, escaping a lifetime of costs for glasses, lenses, and contact solutions. The treatment is also much less invasive than refractive surgery, which is costly and has risks, just like any other operation.
The Bates method maintains that vision problems are caused by physiological and psychological strains and therefore cannot be corrected by wearing glasses. He believed that a combination of rest and exercise would mend the eyes and devised several exercises aimed at strengthening and retraining the eye muscles.
The exercises themselves are simple, but Bates stressed that it takes discipline and attention to detail in order to achieve improvement. Some of the principal exercises of the Bates method are described below.
Palming is aimed at calming the visual system. In this exercise, patients close their eyes and cover them with the palms of their hands, allowing the fingers to cross on the forehead. The hands should be cupped so that no pressure is put on the eyeballs. Next, the patient should open his or her eyes and see if any light is getting in. If so, the hands should be moved so that no light enters and then close the eyes again. The warmth of a person's hands, combined with blocking out all light, will relax a pair of tense eyeballs.
Sitting at a table is a good palming position. A person can place a cushion on the table on which to rest their arms, and should check the height to be sure their hands are not too high or too low. Lying on the back, with knees raised and feet flat on the floor, is also a good position. While palming, patients should imagine a relaxing scene, such as a sunrise or ocean.
A description of the exercise posted on the Bates Association for Vision Education website suggests palming in 5–10-minute sessions, at least once a day. If this is found unpleasant, a person can try mini-sessions, palming for a period of 15 breaths, up to 20 times a day. Palming may also help when the eyes become tired and bleary.
Swinging is meant to train the eyes not to stare. Bates maintained that the rigidity of staring was bad for the eyes. To do this exercise, the patient should focus on a fixed object, then swing the head or the entire body from side to side while keeping the object in view by moving the head instead of the eyes.
Based on the idea that practice makes perfect, this exercise involves practicing eye charts. Patients are asked to focus on a letter, then close their eyes and visualize the black letter for several seconds. After several sessions, Bates maintains, the letters will appear blacker and clearer.
Sunning is aimed at reducing light sensitivity. Bates believed the sun has a therapeutic effect, so patients are asked to close their eyes and face the sun. It is advised to sun only in the morning or evening and only for short periods of time.
Centralization, or central fixation, is aimed at training the eye not to overstrain itself by taking in too much at once. This exercise involves training the eyes to focus on a single point, rather than an entire picture. The eye has a point in the middle of the vision field where vision is sharpest. This exercise is aimed at training people to look only at that point. Patients are asked to look at an object piece by piece instead of trying to look at it in its entirety, which Bates maintains is beyond the physical capabilities of the eye. Bates believed that looking at an entire picture created strain, causing bad eyesight. This is not an exercise per se, but rather something patients are asked to do all day long.
This involves spending the day focused on looking for a specific color. When looking at a color, patients are asked to focus on the color, not the form. Colors change every day.
People interested in the Bates method can pay a professional trained in the method to teach them the exercises or they can simply read about them in books or on the internet for no cost. Bates believed that improvement would vary, depending on the degree of problem and a person's devotion to doing the exercises.
There are no pre-therapy procedures.
There are no side effects, but patients should be cautious when using the sunning exercise, which may cause solar retinitis, or inflammation of the retina, causing permanent damage.
Research & general acceptance
Though the Bates method was devised a century ago, it has never been tested in a clinical setting. At best, anecdotal evidence is all there is to substantiate its use.
The orthodox ophthalmologists of Bates's time, as well as those of today, have largely dismissed his theories as based on flawed science. Traditional ophthalmologists hold that the lens—not the eye muscles—is responsible for focus and therefore cannot be fixed through a series of exercises. Traditional ophthalmologists believe that problems like nearsightedness are anatomic conditions that cannot be fixed by strengthening the eye muscles.
As Philip Pollack noted in his book The Truth About Eye Exercises, Bates used testimonials and case histories depicting successful treatment as scientific proof his theory was sound. Pollack also lambasted Bates for describing rare cases as the norm, using them as justification for his methods.
The Bates method has not found widespread use and is generally not accepted by the medical establishment. In his book Health Education Authority Guide to Complementary Medicine and Therapies, A. Woodham cautions that the medical consensus is that "eye exercises can improve the sight in some cases, but these need a lot of dedication and perseverance. Do not expect miracles."
Training & certification
Natural vision improvement techniques, such as the Bates method, are generally taught by behavioral optometrists or vision therapists. Vision therapists may not necessarily be trained in optometry. It is possible, however, to find practicing optometrists trained by the Bates Association for Vision Education, which offers courses on the method.
Bates, W. The Bates Method for Better Eyesight without Glasses. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1987.
Cheney, E. The Eyes Have It: A Self-Help Manual for Better Vision. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1987.
Booth, Brian. "Nature Cures: Hydrotherapy, Bates Method." Nursing Times 91 no. 20 (May 1995): 42–43.
Karatz, May Annexton. "William Horatio Bates, M.D., and the Bates Method of Eye Exercises." New York State Journal of Medicine 75 no. 7 (June 1975): 1105–1110.
College of Optometrics in Vision Development. P.O. Box 285, Chula Vista, CA 91912. (619) 425-6191. Fax: (619) 425-0733.
"Bates Method." The Vision Improvement Site. 16 July 2000.<http://lightning.prohosting.com/-hanwen/vision/bates.htm>.
"Fallacies of the Bates System." 14 July 2000. Quackwatch.com. <http://www.quackwatch.com>.
"Who Was Dr. Bates?" Bates Association for Vision Education. <http://www.seeing.org/intro/faq/faq01.htm>. 14 July 2000.