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Surgery for Refractive Errors


Deepinder K. Dhaliwal

, MD, L.Ac, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2022 | Modified Sep 2022

Surgical and laser procedures (refractive surgery) can be used to correct the refractive errors nearsightedness Causes Causes , farsightedness Causes Causes , and astigmatism What Is Astigmatism? What Is Astigmatism? . These procedures are commonly used to reshape the cornea so that it is better able to focus light on the retina. Another type of refractive surgery for people who have severe nearsightedness involves insertion of a thin lens inside the eye.

The goal of refractive surgery is to decrease dependence on eyeglasses Eyeglasses Refractive errors can be corrected with glass or plastic lenses mounted in a frame (eyeglasses) or with a small lens made of plastic floating or resting on the cornea (contact lens). Good vision... read more or contact lenses Contact Lenses Refractive errors can be corrected with glass or plastic lenses mounted in a frame (eyeglasses) or with a small lens made of plastic floating or resting on the cornea (contact lens). Good vision... read more . Before deciding on such a procedure, people should have a thorough discussion with an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specializes in the evaluation and treatment [surgical and nonsurgical] of eye disorders) and should carefully consider their own needs and expectations, along with the risks and benefits.

The best candidates for refractive surgery are healthy people aged 18 and older with healthy eyes who are not satisfied with eyeglasses or contact lenses and who enjoy activities, such as swimming or skiing, which are difficult to do with eyeglasses or contact lenses. Many people undergo this surgery for convenience and cosmetic purposes. However, refractive surgery is not recommended for all people with refractive errors Overview of Refractive Disorders In refractive disorders, light rays entering the eye are not focused on the retina, causing blurred vision. The shape of the eye or cornea or age-related stiffness of the lens may decrease the... read more Overview of Refractive Disorders .

People who usually should not have refractive surgery include those who have

Additional people who usually should not have refractive surgery are those who are

  • Taking certain drugs (for example, isotretinoin or amiodarone)

  • Younger than 18 (with a few exceptions)

The doctor determines the exact refractive error (eyeglass prescription) before surgery. The eyes are thoroughly examined, and special attention is paid to the surface cells of the cornea (including whether the cornea has a loose or well-anchored surface layer), the shape and thickness of the cornea (using tests called topography, tomography, and pachymetry Pachymetry A variety of tests can be done to confirm an eye problem or to determine the extent or severity of an eye disorder. Each eye is tested separately. In general, angiography involves injecting... read more ), the pupil size, the intraocular pressure, the optic nerve, and the retina.

Refractive surgical procedures are generally quickly done and cause little discomfort. Eye drops are used to numb the eye. The person should try to keep their eye fixed on a designated target during the procedure. Usually, a person can go home soon after the procedure.

After refractive surgery, most people have distance vision that is good enough to do most things well (for example, driving or going to the movies), although not everyone will have perfect 20/20 vision after the procedure. The people most likely to have 20/20 distance vision after surgery are those who had mild to moderate eyeglass prescriptions before surgery. More than 95% of people will not need to wear corrective lenses for distance vision. However, even if they do not wear eyeglasses for distance vision, most people older than 40 still need to wear eyeglasses for reading after refractive surgery.

Side effects of refractive surgery include temporary symptoms of

Occasionally, these symptoms do not go away. Dryness can cause vision to blur.

Possible complications of refractive surgery may include

  • Overcorrection

  • Undercorrection

  • Infection

It is important to have high-quality surgery with an experienced refractive surgeon to minimize complications.

Types of refractive surgery

Laser In Situ Keratomileusis (LASIK)

LASIK is used to correct nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. In LASIK, a very thin flap is created in the central part of the cornea with a laser or a cutting device called a microkeratome. The flap is lifted, and computer-controlled pulses of highly focused ultraviolet light from an excimer laser vaporize tiny amounts of corneal tissue under the flap to reshape the cornea. The flap is then laid back in place and heals over several days.

LASIK causes little discomfort during and after surgery. Vision improvement is rapid, and many people are able to go back to work within 1 to 3 days.

Complications include possible flap-related problems and long-term thinning and bulging of the cornea (ectasia). If a flap problem develops during surgery, the surgery is stopped but sometimes may be tried again after about 6 months. Another flap problem is a flap dislocation, which usually occurs after a severe eye injury and causes blurry vision. This problem can often be fixed with immediate treatment. Very rarely, flap problems develop when, for example, a flap heals with ridges and causes blurring or star bursts or halos Glare and Halos A number of other symptoms and problems can affect the eyes, including changes in the appearance of the eyes, color blindness, dry eyes, glare and halos, impaired depth perception, itchy eyes... read more . If these flap problems cannot be corrected, they can permanently impair function (such as driving at night) unless a rigid contact lens is used. Ectasia can cause blurring, increased nearsightedness, and irregular astigmatism. Other complications include severe, intermittent blurring resulting from dry eyes and, rarely, vision-threatening infection or inflammation of the cornea.

People who have any conditions that prevent them from having refractive surgery, as well as those who have thin corneas or a loose corneal surface layer, may not be good candidates for LASIK.

Photorefractive Keratectomy (PRK)

PRK is used primarily to correct nearsightedness, astigmatism, and farsightedness. PRK requires use of an excimer laser to reshape the cornea. Unlike LASIK, no flap is created. The cells on the surface of the cornea are removed at the start of the procedure. As in LASIK, computer-controlled pulses of highly focused ultraviolet light remove small amounts of the cornea and thus change its shape to better focus light onto the retina and improve vision without eyeglasses or contact lenses. A contact lens is placed on the eye after the surgery and acts as a bandage (called a bandage contact lens). It helps the surface cells grow back and helps relieve pain. This procedure usually takes 5 minutes per eye.

Complications include possible haze formation (causing blurred or cloudy vision) if a large amount of corneal tissue is removed. Also, people need to use corticosteroid eye drops for several months after surgery. Use of corticosteroid eye drops may cause glaucoma Glaucoma Glaucomas are a group of eye disorders characterized by progressive optic nerve damage (often, but not always, associated with increased eye pressure) that can lead to irreversible loss of vision... read more . Therefore, doctors closely monitor people who are using corticosteroid eye drops. Severe, vision-threatening infection of the cornea is also a rare complication.

Although there is more discomfort and longer healing time with PRK than with LASIK (because the removed surface cells need to grow back), PRK can sometimes be done on people who cannot have LASIK, such as those with a loose corneal surface layer or slightly thin corneas.

Other Refractive Surgery

Other techniques that may have advantages over or different risks than LASIK and PRK include

Small incision lenticule extraction (SMILE)

SMILE is used to treat nearsightedness. In SMILE, a doctor uses a laser to cut a small lenticule (disk) of corneal tissue. This tissue is then removed through a very small incision (2 to 4 mm) in the adjacent cornea. The reshaped cornea corrects the refractive error in a person with nearsightedness.

SMILE is similar to LASIK Laser In Situ Keratomileusis (LASIK) Surgical and laser procedures (refractive surgery) can be used to correct the refractive errors nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. These procedures are commonly used to reshape... read more (laser in situ keratomileusis) in terms of effectiveness and safety. However, because SMILE does not create a flap of tissue like in LASIK, flap-related complications (such as flap dislocation) are avoided. In addition, because the incision is very small, the risk of dry eye is lower.

SMILE does carry a slightly higher risk of an intra-operative complication called suction loss. However, suction loss, when properly treated, usually does not impair vision. Some people cannot undergo other eye surgeries after SMILE.

Phakic intraocular lenses (IOLs)

For people who have moderate to severe nearsightedness, a plastic lens can be placed inside the eye, in front of or behind the iris (phakic IOL implantation). The person's own natural lens is left in place.

Phakic IOLs achieve better vision than laser vision correction in people with high levels of nearsightedness. Some people can have laser vision correction after phakic IOL placement to further correct vision.

Clear lensectomy

Sometimes the natural lens is removed, and a plastic lens is placed in the lens capsule (clear lensectomy with IOL implantation). This is the same procedure as cataract surgery, but there is no cataract or cloudy lens. Clear lensectomy with IOL implantation may be better for people with severe farsightedness who are over age 40. Because these techniques require that an opening be made in the eye, there is a very small risk (but significantly higher than for LASIK) of severe infection inside the eye. Clear lensectomy is often avoided in young people who are very nearsighted because they have an increased risk of detachment of the retina Detachment of the Retina Detachment of the retina is separation of the retina (the transparent, light-sensitive structure at the back of the eye) from the underlying layer to which it is attached. People notice a sudden... read more after surgery.

Intracorneal ring segments (INTACS)

INTACS are used for people with mild nearsightedness and minimal astigmatism. Small plastic arc-shaped segments are implanted into the middle layer of the cornea near its outer edge. The plastic arcs change the shape of the cornea to improve focus. Because no tissue is removed during the procedure, the INTACS procedure can be reversed by removing the small plastic segments.

Risks include astigmatism, undercorrection, overcorrection, infection, glare, and seeing halos.

Currently, INTACS are mostly used to treat disorders such as keratoconus and ectasia after LASIK or PRK surgery when eyeglasses or contact lenses no longer provide adequate vision or are uncomfortable.

Radial keratotomy and astigmatic keratotomy

In radial keratotomy and astigmatic keratotomy, surgeons change the shape of the cornea by making deep incisions in the cornea using a diamond or stainless steel blade or laser.

Radial keratotomy has been replaced by laser vision correction and is rarely used.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Absorica, Absorica LD, Accutane, Amnesteem , Claravis , MYORISAN, Sotret, ZENATANE
Cordarone, Nexterone, Pacerone
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