How to Decide If Your Next Eyeglasses Should Be Multifocal

If your current glasses or contact lenses aren’t quite cutting it lately, you might be a candidate for multifocal lenses that let you see both near and far with a single pair. Here’s what you need to know.

African American woman wearing glasses looking at phone smiling

If you’re like many people, you’ve probably spent several years (or even a couple of decades) happily wearing glasses or contacts. Then around age 40 … surprise! You’re at a restaurant and find yourself moving the menu a little farther from your face to make out the appetizer list. Or maybe you need to take off your glasses to see it. Or both.

This change in vision is typical, says Angelika Pacholek, O.D., an optometrist with America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Orland Park, Illinois. When her patients “wake up one day and notice that they can’t read anymore,” she gives them three options for switching from a single prescription to multifocal eyeglass lenses.

“Option number one is to get two sets of glasses, one for close up or reading and one for distance,” Dr. Pacholek explains. This works best for people whose daily activities require mostly distance vision or those who mainly do close-up work at a computer or desk setting.

Another benefit of going this route is a wider array of frame styles and sizes, especially if you like smaller or narrower shapes.

If switching back and forth seems cumbersome, the second option is lined bifocals. These are lenses with two powers. The section in the lower part of the lens corrects presbyopia and enables reading, and the rest of the lens is for distance vision. (Less common are trifocals, which include a third zone in the middle to see objects about 1½ to 2 feet away.)

Some people find it hard to adjust to moving between the two powers in bifocals. They may experience an “image jump,” where images appear to move as their eyes shift between the near and far areas of the bifocal lenses.

Or they may simply object to the appearance of bifocals: There can be a visible line across the middle of the lenses. (Better technology has made that line much less noticeable.)

For those patients, Dr. Pacholek recommends the third option, progressive lenses. Instead of having just two (or three) lens powers, the transition in progressives is gradual and seamless, eliminating the image jump. These are also known as no-line bifocals, because the change in power isn’t visible on the lenses themselves.

“Progressives also allow for intermediate-distance vision, thanks to the transitional aspect between reading and distance prescriptions,” Dr. Pacholek explains.

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How to Decide Which Multifocal Option Is Right for You

Dr. Pacholek advises patients to consider a couple of key things.

1. How much time do you spend on close-up work?

If your lifestyle and daily tasks don’t require frequent switching back and forth between near and far vision, having two pairs of glasses might be the easiest solution. “If you only work on the computer at home, a single-vision lens might work,” Dr. Pacholek says.

“But if you are a receptionist who needs to greet people and also work on a computer or phone, single-vision won’t work,” she says. Dr. Pacholek asks detailed questions about her patients’ day-to-day activity.

“How people interact, whether they’re driving, say, or looking closely at printed material, or going back and forth — this is something we discuss before making the decision to switch to bifocals or progressives.”

Once you decide on multifocals, Dr. Pacholek recommends experimenting with distances during an eye exam. “I sit them down in front of the computer and in front of a piece of paper and let them see the different distances,” she says.

You might also want to test looking at your smartphone or simulating your car’s dashboard. Look at several objects placed at a distance that’s roughly where your dashboard would be. Be sure the items have words or numbers on them so that you can practice reading.

Acting out real-world scenarios in this way helps the optometrist assess the best mix of distances to suit your specific needs, she adds.

2. Do you have the patience to adjust to multifocals?

With single-vision glasses or contact lenses, you move your head to see better at different distances, but with multifocals, you’ll move your eyes. Getting used to multifocal lenses takes time, typically two to four weeks.

“I tell patients that if they’ve had trouble with bifocals or multifocals in the past, it might be that no one helped them learn ways to adjust,” says Dr. Pacholek. When you get your new lenses, for example, sit in front of the TV with a phone in your hands and practice moving your eyes back and forth from one focal point to the other.

Wearing multifocals for the first time can also create issues with depth perception and peripheral vision that typically resolve after the first few weeks. Dr. Pacholek recommends taking it slowly and giving yourself at least one week to make the adjustment.

“New wearers should be sure they’ve completely adjusted to their new glasses before going up and down stairs without holding on to a handrail or driving.”

She explains: “As you move on stairs, you tend to look downward with your eyes, and in so doing, the steps will be magnified — and thus appear closer than they really are. For someone who drives a lot, it’s a good idea to stay off the freeway until you’re comfortable with the adjustment of looking back and forth from the dash to out the window.”

Making the Switch to Multifocals

Your optometrist is a crucial partner in switching to multifocal lenses, which sometimes requires making small adjustments. For example, the lens technician may need to move the transition area higher or lower on the face. That flexibility is built into the process at America’s Best, and customization is key.

“If a patient can’t adjust to the new bifocals or multifocals, if they determine they can’t get used to it, we will remake the glasses to suit the new wearer’s needs,” Dr. Pacholek says. Or your optometrist might suggest switching back to single-vision lenses.

“If there’s something that doesn’t work, we can always troubleshoot. We can make sure the frame is correct, the measurements are good, and make any needed modifications. I would just say to have an open mind,” says Dr. Pacholek.