Ask an Optometrist: How Do I Know if I Have Good Peripheral Vision?

What you can see out of the corners of your eyes is surprisingly important. Here’s what to know about this key component of eyesight, including how to safeguard it.

Photo of mature man looking to the side out of a window

When you want to get a better look at something, your instinct is likely to face the thing and look at it head-on, using what’s called your central vision. But you might be surprised by how much you can see that isn't right in front of you. 

Peripheral vision is when you see something “out of the corner of your eye,” and it’s more than just your side vision. It’s also what you can see above and below while you’re looking straight ahead. This wide-angle view of the world might be a bit blurrier than your central vision, but it has many important uses. 

Unfortunately, certain conditions and eye diseases can threaten your peripheral vision. But how do you know if you have poor peripheral vision? After all, you use your central vision for activities such as reading and looking at pictures. That means you can’t rely on some of those telltale symptoms of vision loss, such as blurry words on the page. 

Read on to learn more about peripheral vision, including warning signs that something might be off with yours — and what to do about it. 

Has it been a while since your last eye exam? Now’s the time to book an appointment!   

How Does My Peripheral Vision Help Me? 

“In short, peripheral vision keeps us safe,” says Anthony Giallombardo, O.D., an optometrist at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Brick, New Jersey. “Whether we’re walking, driving, or just looking around, we need to be able to see our surroundings.” 

Peripheral vision can help you see a car that’s about to swerve into your lane, for instance, or a baseball flying in your direction. That way, you can take quick action to protect yourself. 

Even if you can’t view what’s in your periphery with 100% clarity, you can still make out the general shapes, colors, and movements. That gives you important clues about what’s going on around you. It’s why people can walk up and down the stairs without looking down at each step they take. 

Good peripheral vision also helps you out in social situations. It makes it easier to talk and interact with the people beside you. 

Do Some People Naturally Have Better Peripheral Vision Than Others? 

Not really. “Healthy people with no vision disorders should all have the same peripheral vision,” says Dr. Giallombardo. 

Why Might My Peripheral Vision Change? 

Peripheral vision naturally worsens with age. It shrinks a little bit every decade after about age 45. By age 70 to 80, people could lose between 20% and 30% of their peripheral vision, says Dr. Giallombardo. Drooping eyelids later in life may also interfere with peripheral vision. 

But certain medical conditions, namely glaucoma, can also lead to a decline in your peripheral vision.  

Glaucoma is a condition, usually marked by high eye pressure, that can damage the optic nerve, the part of the eye that helps make sense of what you’re seeing. That damage corresponds to peripheral vision loss, says Dr. Giallombardo. 

Usually there are no early warning signs of glaucoma. Peripheral vision loss is typically the first symptom a person would notice. But your eye doctor can spot it much sooner during an eye exam , making it all the more important that you keep up with your regular visits. 

Other medical conditions can result in peripheral vision loss too, including: 

  • Detached retina 
  • Retinitis pigmentosa, a group of rare genetic eye diseases 
  • Stroke or head injury 

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How Will My Optometrist Check My Peripheral Vision? 

Your eye doctor will check your peripheral vision during a comprehensive eye exam, says Dr. Giallombardo. 

His preliminary testing method doesn’t even require any special tools. “I’ll do a quick screening by holding up my hand at different points in a patient’s peripheral field of vision and ask how many fingers I’m holding up,” he says. “If a patient misses some of those, I’ll recommend a visual field test.” 

A visual field test requires a patient to line their head and eyes up in a machine that flashes small lights throughout their full visual field. The patient is directed to focus on a specific point straight ahead and to click a button when they see a target — a flashing light anywhere in their field of vision. (Watch the video below to learn more about this optional test that can be added on to your regular eye exam.) 

A visual field test is recommended at least every two years until age 65, at which point it’s a good idea to get screened every year. If you have an eye disease or are at risk of one, you may need to be screened more often. 

What Peripheral Vision Changes Should I Look Out For? 

When people begin to lose their peripheral vision, they might say they’re experiencing “tunnel vision.” It’s a term to describe the shrinking field of vision associated with peripheral vision loss, and it might look a bit like looking through a paper towel tube or, well, a tunnel. If you feel like you have tunnel vision, it’s a good idea to visit your optometrist for an eye exam. 

But not all symptoms of peripheral vision loss are as obvious. Dr. Giallombardo encourages people to keep an eye out for these issues, which could point to peripheral vision loss: 

  • You’re tripping on things. 
  • You’re bumping into things. 
  • You lose your footing while going up or down the stairs. 
  • You struggle to play catch with your kids. 
  • You don’t always notice other cars in your rearview and side mirrors while driving. 
  • You have trouble seeing in the dark. 
  • You have trouble moving through crowded spaces. 

Can Eyeglasses or Contact Lenses Help Restore My Lost Peripheral Vision? 

Sometimes, lost peripheral vision can be restored. But it’s not a guarantee. It ultimately depends on the underlying cause of your vision loss. 

Treatments for glaucoma can slow down future peripheral vision loss but cannot bring back lost vision. And peripheral vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa is also permanent. 

But if your peripheral vision has declined due to a detached retina, your full field of vision may return after a doctor reattaches your retina. The same goes for treating optic nerve inflammation or having surgery for sagging eyelids. 

Depending on your situation, special eyeglasses may be able to help restore some of your peripheral vision. They contain lenses that use prisms to shrink what you’re seeing — that way, your central vision picks up a slightly wider view, helping you see more in your field of vision. 

Your eye doctor can help come up with a care plan that’s right for your vision needs. 

Press play to learn more about the visual field test and other parts of the eye exam: 

Medically reviewed by Anthony Giallombardo, O.D.

See our sources: 
Peripheral vision overview: Cleveland Clinic 
Study on how peripheral vision helps us with tasks: Psychonomic Bulletin & Review