“The available evidence is not sufficiently reliable to conclude that colored filters are effective for alleviation of reading difficulty or discomfort,” states newly published research out of London.1 That may not seems like a groundbreaking development to American doctors, who have largely dismissed the technique, but in the UK, where the practice is more common, it represents a sea change, according to Paul Harris, OD, who specializes in vision therapy at Southern College of Optometry.

Dr. Harris says the concept that colored overlays and lenses for patients with reading problems first gained popularity in the 1980s when Australian researcher Helen Irlen started publishing about a condition she called “scotopic sensitivity syndrome.”2 This term referred to signs and symptoms associated with learning disabilities. Ms. Irlen suggested patients with this disorder could be successfully treated using tinted lenses, individually tailored to each patient from 150 color options—known as Irlen lenses.2

According to research published in 2004, however, most people whose reading was helped with color screens also had binocular vision disorders.3 In most cases, addressing those binocular vision concerns solved the reading issue, Dr. Harris explains. In fact, additional research shows that the Irlen lenses themselves don’t even improve near accommodative accuracy.4

 This most recent article looked over 31 studies of colored overlays and lenses and found only four qualified as systematic reviews. Only one of those even suggested colored overlays or lenses can alleviate symptoms in people with visual stress at all, and even that study’s authors noted that the quality of their evidence was “lower than would be needed for medical interventions.”

Dr. Harris says this is just the latest development in a move away from these therapies in the UK. “There really is something to it,” he says “but once we address the underlying binocular vision issue, it no longer has any impact.” He does, however, advocate the use of colored lenses for applications other than reading disorders, such as for patients who suffer migraines, seizure and traumatic brain injuries. These patients “have a lot of trouble with fluorescent lights,” he says. They can make patients feel as though “they’re walking around in a fog.” The use of colored lenses for these patients, he says, may provide some temporary relief. “It’s not a fix; what we’re trying to do is reduce the trigger.”

1. Suttle C, Lawrenson J, Conway M. Efficacy of coloured overlays and lenses for treating reading difficulty: an overview of systematic reviews. Clin Exp Optom. 2018;101(7):514-20.

2. Irlen H. Successful treatment of learning disabilities. Presented at 91st Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Anaheim, California: August 1983.

3. Williams G, Kitchener G, Press L, et al. Overlays for the treatment of dyslexia and other related reading and learning disorders. Optometry. 2004;75(11):720-2.

4. Ciuffreda K, Scheiman M, Ong E, et al. Irlen lenses do not improve accommodative accuracy at near. Optom Vis Sci. 1997;74(5):298-302.