Coloured Lenses and Reading Ability: What’s the Real Story?

by LukeAdmin

By Dr Nicholas Altuneg

We are living in a technology revolution and with so much information available in real time, we just need to be able to find time to read it. Time is our most valuable resource; we can’t get it back once we have lost it.

Whether you are a child learning at school, an adult working on screens all day or someone who likes to catch up on news or social media, being able to read and process information quickly enables us to respond faster and more appropriately to our environment. This gives us more time to do what we want to do in a day, rather than what we need to do in a day.

Could we benefit from using coloured lenses to improve our reading ability?

Coloured lenses were first used in the US Civil War to treat depression. This is where the phrase “seeing the world through rose–coloured lenses” originated.

Coloured light has been shown to trigger chemical responses in the body.

  • Blue light is essential in the regulation of our circadian rhythm
  • Red light is associated with excitement, danger, anger, and aggression
  • Green light promotes creativity, safety and has a calming effect
  • Yellow light could improve the level of attention, reading speed and response time.

But could these effects be transferred in a tinted lens? This possibility was first described in the early 1980’s to treat a condition called “Irlen Syndrome”

What is Irlen Syndrome?
Irlen Syndrome is described as a disorder in the way the brain interprets light signals. It was identified in the early 1980s by Olive Meares and Helen Irlen as a perceptual processing disorder. They reported at that time that this was not an optical problem, only that the brain’s ability to process visual information is impaired.

The treatment that is offered to alleviate these reading difficulties is the use of coloured lenses.

Fact or fiction?
There have been two independent reviews of the evidence behind the benefits of coloured lenses on reading ability.

In a review in 2016, 244 studies were assessed, but only 51 of these studies could be used due to significant flaws in study design. Of that 51, half showed no improvement in reading ability with the use of coloured lenses. The improvements described in the remaining studies were deemed to be unreliable because they relied on subjective responses which could easily be biased. The positive responses were likely the result of placebo, practice, or the Hawthorne effect.

In another review in 2019, the authors were very critical of the scientific methods used in most studies and expressed concerns about the validity of Irlen Syndrome as a condition. They reported that much of the data supporting it was outdated and the theories were highly speculative.

It was concluded by both studies that the use of coloured lenses should not be endorsed and not recommended for treating reading deficits.

Here in Australia, the position statement of the Australasian College of Behavioural Optometrists is that there is no reliable scientific evidence to support the routine use of Irlen lenses to treat reading problems and dyslexia.

Symptoms of Irlen Syndrome
Blurry vision, headaches, eye strain/ fatigue, visual disturbances, light sensitivity, difficulty attending and difficulty with depth perception are reported as common symptoms of Irlen Syndrome.

Could these symptoms be caused by something else?
These same symptoms are very commonly seen in Binocular Vision Anomalies such as Convergence Insufficiency, Accommodative Dysfunction and Oculomotor dysfunction.

What does the research say?
Two independent studies reported that 95% and 83% of subjects identified as good candidates for Irlen filters had identifiable visual issues.

This suggests that many people seeking treatment from Irlen filters may not need them if their visual issue is resolved by Optometric treatment.

A separate independent study found that 57% of Irlen candidates reported having had an eye examination in the last 12 months, but 90% of these subjects had significant visual efficiency problems which were undiagnosed.

This suggests that many routine eye examinations are not detecting binocular vision or oculomotor anomalies.

What have I found in clinical practice?
In 30 years of clinical practice, I have found that a small number of patients respond positively in their reading performance to colour. Still, the majority of these no longer observe the benefit of the colour once their binocular vision anomaly is corrected.

The remaining patients who respond positively to colour are usually sensitive to pattern glare. These patients have increased sensitivity to bright and flickering lights, as well as certain striped patterns. This could be associated with certain types of migraine, epilepsy or occur after a concussion.

In these cases, combining the best binocular vision correction with the clinically determined appropriate colour will provide symptomatic relief and optimal visual function.

I believe that coloured lenses could benefit a very small percentage of cases. However, this should only be considered after a binocular vision anomaly has been ruled out. In patients who are sensitive to pattern glare, an appropriate tint can be added to enhance a binocular vision correction if it provides an additional benefit.

According to the research, 90% of basic eye examinations do not detect these binocular vision anomalies, so where do you go to investigate this properly?

An experienced independent Optometrist is more likely to take the time to assess properly for binocular vision anomalies. If they have training in Behavioural Optometry, then they will be able to diagnose and treat more conditions in this area.

Dr Nicholas Altuneg is a Behavioural Optometrist who has been working on the Central Coast for almost 30 years. He is the co–founder at Eyes by Design, which is in the Kincumber Centre. Appointments can be made by phone 4369 8169 or online at

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general eye health topics. It should not be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your health care professional prior to incorporating this as part of your health regimen.

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