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Eye Exams and Protocols for Athletes

The eye exam for professional athletes like skiers may start with a basic eye exam, but where it ends is entirely different. Dr. Sheila LaPlante, who’s particular interest is sport vision training for prevention of concussions, notes that the first step in treating athletes is ensuring perfect vision, and then it shifts to vision training, and as Dr. LaPlante points out, it’s a highly personalized process, “It’s different for every athlete, and different for every sport. Once you see what the challenges are, you can start doing vision therapy.”

Dr. Kevin Loopeker, who specializes in sport vision at a multidisciplinary sports medicine site, added that a regular eye exam is static: you’re sitting in a chair, reading a static chart and being tested for visual clarity. For alpine athletes for instance, they’re testing and optimizing so much more than just eyesight.

As Dr. Loopeker explains, an athlete's eye exam encompasses “contrast sensitivity” (which is one’s ability to spot and track objects against all types of backgrounds coordination of the eyes, depth perception not only at various distances. We look at the body moving through space, too. So a lot of our tests are done standing up and moving and involving balance and eye hand coordination.”

Dr. LaPlante adds, “Contrast can be really important, and we don’t always test that in a basic eye exam. We always check the speed of recognition for athletes–that’s something we don’t do in a basic eye exam.”

The process of vision testing athletes can take several hours–this isn’t your average eye exam. (But then again, these aren’t average eyes, they’re the difference between silver and gold!) The rigorous testing is vital for understanding the weaknesses of the eyes, which then determines the treatment and training program. “We test to know how to train. During the exam, we take measurements of all their visual skills, and depending on their strengths and weaknesses, we’ll really go and train the weaker results.” Dr. LaPlante explained.

Vision Training

Once vision testing is complete, the training can begin. This can occur on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, or as frequently as the athlete's schedule allows. Dr. LaPlante urges skiers, and all athletes, to begin their vision training six to eight weeks before the sports season begins and has seen improvements in some of her patients in as little as four weeks.

Dr. Loopeker explained that because every athlete and sport is unique, requiring a different combination of skills, the testing and vision protocol is entirely unique too. This means Dr. Loopeker and Dr. LaPlante are continually bringing creativity to their practices, to find new ways to analyze and train their patients. Sure, an athlete can display adequate vision while standing on two feet during an exam, but Dr. Loopeker wants to see when the struggle begins. He does this by overloading the athlete’s cognitive and visual motor systems. Only then can they begin to recreate the experience and stress of an actual race and discover where an athlete’s weaknesses lie.

That one or two percent improvement in vision can make all the difference for a skier about to enter a competition. Dr. LaPlante always advises her patients: “If you see better, your global visual performance is stronger, and your information processing will be more accurate, so you can make decisions faster. And we know in high-level sports, milliseconds can change the results.”

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