We blink thousands of times every day without even thinking. You’ve probably blinked several times whilst reading this sentence. But what if you DID have to think about each blink, and it became a conscious rather than an unconscious action?
That has become the reality for Robert Graham, 66, from Bingley in Yorkshire whose life changed when he blinked in the morning sunshine and his eyelids remained closed. After the initial shock, the condition progressed to him not being able to see while walking, having to give up driving, stop reading and sit through meetings with his eyes closed.
He is now dependent on regular botox injections from a specialist eye hospital, Optegra, to help control his eye movements.
Robert’s problem first occurred eight years ago, on his regular commute from Bradford to Leeds where he worked as an accountant. He explains:
“This problem hit me out of the blue – I have never had any difficulty with my eyes and still have extremely good eyesight.
“I had got off the train in Leeds and was walking along the main road. The sun was coming up at the end of the road and when I looked that way, my eyelids closed. However much I tried, they would not open again.
“It was such an unusual feeling. I tried pushing them and forcing the lids open and eventually, when walking in the shade, my eyes re-opened.
“The route to work was so familiar to me that I carried on with limited vision. Inside the office, things were marginally better but my eyes were twitching and shutting throughout the day without any control. It was very unpleasant. Whenever I moved, my eyes would shut. They felt heavy, so I thought it was due to tiredness as it had never happened before.”
Over the next few months, Robert continued his commute, adopting a pattern of walking with his eyes closed before opening them very briefly to get his bearings. “I could only keep my eyes open for a fraction of a second at a time, enough to see where I was and enable me to walk for the next five seconds with my eyes closed. But one day I collided with a lamp post which made me realise that I couldn’t continue with this bizarre routine and needed to take action.”
Robert went to see his local GP, who incorrectly diagnosed him with dry eyes and gave him eye drops. This made no difference at all so he asked to be referred to a specialist.
Robert explains: “The specialist thought I had inflammation of the eyes and set about treating that. Although there was a very slight improvement, there was no change in my overall condition.”
By this point, the eye condition was having a major impact on Robert’s life. He had to stop driving and couldn’t read, something he had always enjoyed. At work, he would conduct meetings with his eyes closed. “I would explain that I was listening even if my eyes were closed – I didn’t want people to think I was being rude or was disinterested. If I needed to say something, I would briefly open my eyes.
“I was almost completely blind. I bought numerous pairs of sunglasses and goggles to protect my eyes from any air movement, which seemed to trigger the eyelids to close. This helped marginally but as my eyes became increasingly tired throughout the day they would close for longer periods of time.”
Eventually, Robert was referred to Professor Bernie Chang at Optegra Eye Hospital Yorkshire, who is also President of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.
Robert said: “I showed him a video of what happened to my eyes during the day and he concluded that I had blepharospasm and suggested I have botox injections. Within 24 hours I saw an improvement which was remarkable.”
Professor Bernie Chang explains: “Blepharospasm is where the muscles that close your eyes contract involuntarily. The exact cause of this condition is not known but there is a fundamental problem with transmission of messages to the eyelid muscles making them “hyperactive” and they go into spasm.
“The botulinum toxin (botox) injections need to target specific areas to allow the eyes to open and to reduce the spasms so they stay open. There are other treatments but this is the main one with a lower risk of complications.
“Mr Graham has to come in every few months, but the injections are working and he has a degree of control over his eyelids again.”
Alongside the botox injections, Robert has tried acupuncture and hypnotism. “I discovered that the more you fight the eyes, and try to force them open, the tighter they clamp shut,” he said.
“The best course of action is to relax the facial muscles – this is what the alternative therapies taught me to do. Using these techniques alongside the botox means I can relax my whole face and therefore control my eye movements. I have to constantly remind myself to do this.
“I am learning to manage my condition and I am largely functional. It does make everyday actions more challenging and even though I have perfect eyesight, it’s a constant drain on my eyes. However, rather than being a disability, it is now more of a nuisance. I am extremely grateful to Optegra for giving me the chance to live a relatively normal life despite my rather unusual condition.”
Optegra Eye Hospital Yorkshire is part of Optegra Eye Health Care and is a specialist provider of ophthalmic services. Established in 2007, it has completed over one million eye procedures from its 34 eye hospitals and clinics across the UK, Czech Republic and Poland.
Optegra brings together leading-edge research, medical expertise and state-of-the-art surgical equipment. It performs more than 100,000 treatments annually, both private and publicly funded. Its top ophthalmic surgeons are renowned for their areas of expertise, offering excellent clinical outcomes and great patient service.
Tel: 0800 077 3272