Astigmatism is the result of an inability of the cornea to properly focus an image onto the retina. The result is a blurred image.


The cornea is the outermost part of the eye. It is a transparent layer that covers the coloured part of the eye (iris), pupil, and lens. The cornea bends light and helps to focus it onto the retina where specialised cells (photo receptors) detect light and transmit nerve impulses via the optic nerve to the brain where the image is formed. The cornea is dome shaped. Any incorrect shaping of the cornea results in an incorrect focusing of the light that passes through that part of the cornea. The bending of light is called refraction and focusing problems with the cornea are called diseases of refraction or refractive disorders. Astigmatism is an image distortion that results from an improperly shaped cornea. Usually the cornea is spherically shaped, like a football. However, in astigmatism the cornea is elliptically shaped, more like a rugby ball. There is a long meridian and a short meridian. These two meridians generally have a constant curvature and are generally perpendicular to each other (regular astigmatism). Irregular astigmatism may have more than two meridians of focus and they may not be 90 degrees apart. A point of light, therefore, going through an astigmatic cornea will have two points of focus, instead of one nice sharp image on the retina. This will cause the person to have blurry vision. What the blur looks like will depend upon the amount and the direction of the astigmatism. A person with nearsightedness (myopia ) or farsightedness (hyperopia ) may see a dot as a blurred circle. A person with astigmatism may see the same dot as a blurred oval or frankfurter-shaped blur.

Some cases of astigmatism are caused by problems in the lens of the eye. Minor variations in the curvature of the lens can produce minor degrees of astigmatism (lenticular astigmatism). In these patients, the cornea is usually normal in shape. Infants, as a group, have the least amount of astigmatism. Astigmatism may increase during childhood, as the eye is developing.

Causes and symptoms

The main symptom of astigmatism is blurring. People can also experience headaches and eyestrain. Parents can notice that a child may have astigmatism when the child can see some part of a pattern or picture more clearly than others. For example, lines going across may seem clearer than lines going up and down.

Regular astigmatism can be caused by the weight of the upper eyelid resting on the eyeball creating distortion, surgical incisions in the cornea, trauma or scarring to the cornea, the presence of tumors in the eyelid, or a developmental factor. Irregular astigmatism can be caused by scarring or keratoconus. Keratoconus is a condition in which the cornea thins and becomes cone shaped. It usually occurs around puberty and is more common in women. Although the causes of keratoconus are unknown, it may be hereditary or a result of chronic eye rubbing, as in people with allergies. The centre of the cone may not be in line with the center of the cornea. Diabetes can play a role in the development of astigmatism. High blood sugar levels can cause shape changes in the lens of the eye. This process usually occurs slowly and, often, is only noticed when the diabetic has started treatment to control their blood sugar. The return to a more normal blood sugar allows the lens to return to normal and this change is sometimes noticed by the patient as farsightedness. Because of this, diabetics should wait until their blood sugar is under control for at least one month to allow vision to stabilise before being measured for eyeglasses.