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How To Do Lateral Canthotomy


Christopher J. Brady

, MD, Wilmer Eye Institute, Retina Division, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2023
Topic Resources

Lateral canthotomy, the emergency treatment for orbital compartment syndrome, is the surgical exposure of the lateral canthal tendon. Cantholysis is canthotomy plus incision of the inferior branch (crus) of the tendon.

Indications for Lateral Canthotomy

Blunt facial trauma (see Eye Contusions and Lacerations Eye Contusions and Lacerations Consequences of blunt trauma to the eye range from eyelid to orbital injury. (See also Overview of Eye Trauma.) Eyelid contusions (which result in black eyes) are more cosmetically than clinically... read more Eye Contusions and Lacerations ) may cause retrobulbar hematoma or severe edema surrounding the eyeball, either of which can increase intraorbital pressure. Because the eye is constrained by the lids and the orbit, increased intraorbital pressure can cause intraocular pressure to rise rapidly and compress the optic nerve and its vascular supply. Untreated, this increased pressure causes permanent vision loss (OCS). Lateral canthotomy and cantholysis are done immediately to relieve intraorbital pressure and preserve vision if signs indicate OCS.

Contraindications to Lateral Canthotomy

Absolute contraindications

  • Suspected globe rupture (eg, irregular pupil, hyphema, herniated iris tissue, shallow cornea, leak of aqueous humor)

Complications of Lateral Canthotomy

Complications may include

  • Mechanical damage of the eye (eg, to the lateral rectus muscle, lacrimal gland, or lacrimal artery) or lids

  • Hemorrhage

  • Infection

The urgency of the procedure, combined with traumatic distortion of the anatomy and possible unfamiliarity with the procedure by nonophthalmologists, may increase the risk of iatrogenic injury to the eyeball.

Equipment for Lateral Canthotomy

  • Sterile gauze, gloves, and drapes

  • Antiseptic solution (eg, chlorhexidine, povidone iodine)

  • Topical ocular anesthetic (eg, 0.5% proparacaine or tetracaine eyedrops)

  • Local anesthetic (eg, 1% or 2% lidocaine with epinephrine), small injection needles, and small (about 3 mL) syringe

  • Ophthalmic antibiotic ointment (eg, erythromycin 0.5%, bacitracin)

  • Sometimes, normal saline or water for irrigation

  • Needle holder or hemostat, toothed forceps, iris scissors

Additional Considerations for Lateral Canthotomy

  • Speed of diagnosis of orbital compartment syndrome (OCS) and of execution of the canthotomy or cantholysis procedure are important to minimize the duration of retinal ischemia. Ophthalmologic consultation should be requested but should not delay the procedure. Because the diagnosis of OCS is purely clinical, the procedure also should not be delayed for imaging studies.

  • Sterile technique is necessary.

  • This procedure is painful. A conscious, confused, or uncooperative patient may require regional nerve block, sedation, or restraint to prevent motion that could result in damage to the eyeball during the procedure. Children may require general anesthesia in the operating room.

Relevant Anatomy for Lateral Canthotomy

  • The medial and lateral canthal ligaments contain the eye within the orbit and eyelids.

  • The lateral canthal tendon has two branches: a superior and an inferior. Cutting one, or both, loosens the eyelids and allows the globe to expand out of the orbit and thus relieve pressure on the eye.

Positioning for Lateral Canthotomy

  • Position the patient supine on the stretcher and stabilize the patient’s head and eyelids.

Step-by-Step Description of Lateral Canthotomy

  • All preliminary steps should be done as quickly as possible, including rough estimation of visual acuity Assessing Visual Acuity Assessing Visual Acuity , inspection of the globe, and sometimes a simple cleaning and irrigation of the lateral canthus area.

  • Place all your instruments on a tray near the head of the bed, so everything is within easy reach and you do not have to ask for assistance.

  • Prepare the skin with an antiseptic agent such as povidone iodine or chlorhexidine; do not allow the antiseptic to enter the eye. Drape the area.

  • Inject 1 or 2 mL of local anesthetic containing epinephrine into the lateral canthal incision site.

  • Use a needle driver or hemostat to crush the tissue from the lateral canthus to the rim of the orbit, for about 20 seconds to 2 minutes. Crushing this tissue helps minimize bleeding and makes it easier to see where to cut when there is extensive traumatic edema.

  • Use iris scissors to cut from the lateral canthus to the rim of the orbit, about 1 to 2 cm (canthotomy).

  • Cut the inferior and sometimes both crus of the lateral canthal ligament (cantholysis). Most experts recommend starting with the inferior crus. Lift the lateral portion of lower eyelid. With the scissors pointing away from the globe, identify and cut the inferior crus. “Strumming” with the scissors may help identify the inferior crus. If the tendon is still intact, you will feel a twanging like a plucked string.

  • Next, some experts recommend routinely cutting the superior crus. Others recommend reassessing for relief of orbital compartment syndrome (OCS—eg, by measuring intraocular pressure) and cutting the superior crus only if OCS persists.

  • To cut the superior crus, lift and expose the underside of the lateral upper eyelid. Check whether the superior crus tendon has been cut by strumming across it with the scissors.

  • If the tendon is still intact, cut it. Cutting the tendon loosens the eyelid and relieves pressure on the eye even more.

How To Do Lateral Canthotomy
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Procedure demonstrated by Matthew A. Stephens, MD, faculty.

Walter A. Schrading, MD, FACEP, faculty supervisor.

WellSpan York Hospital Emergency Medicine Residency Program York, PA.

Cadaver specimens provided by Maryland State Anatomy Board, DHMH.

Filmed on location at School of Medicine, Anatomical Services Division, Univ. of Maryland.

Aftercare for Lateral Canthotomy

  • Because the patient cannot blink to lubricate the cornea, apply an antibiotic ointment to the eye and cover it with a sterile dressing.

  • Lateral canthotomy incisions are not sutured at the time of the canthotomy and often heal without significant scarring.

  • Patients with severe injuries should be hospitalized.

  • Methylprednisolone (ie, 250 mg IM/IV every 6 hours) for 3 days should be considered for inpatients with progressive vision loss.

  • If intraocular pressure remains elevated, topical therapy (eg, timolol 0.5%, brimonidine 0.2%, or dorzolamide 2% eye drops) or systemic therapy (eg, acetazolamide immediate-release 500 mg by mouth, or mannitol 1 to 2 mg/kg IV over 45 minutes) should be considered.

  • Patients should avoid straining and apply ice packs for several days following canthotomy.

Warnings and Common Errors of Lateral Canthotomy

  • If a ruptured globe is suspected, avoid checking intraocular pressure or palpating the globe.

Tips and Tricks for Lateral Canthotomy

  • When cutting the inferior crus, aim inferoposteriorly toward the lateral rim to avoid injuring the levator muscle, lacrimal gland, and lacrimal artery, which are located superiorly.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Betasept, Chlorostat, DYNA-HEX, Hibiclens, Oro Clense , Peridex, Periogard, PerioRx , Perisol
Alcaine, Ocu-Caine, Ophthalmicaine , Ophthetic, Parcaine
AK-T Caine, Pontocaine, Pontocaine in Dextrose, Pontocaine Niphanoid, Tetcaine, TetraVisc, TetraVisc Forte, Viractin
7T Lido, Akten , ALOCANE, ANASTIA, AneCream, Anestacon, Aspercreme with Lidocaine, AsperFlex, Astero , BenGay, Blue Tube, Blue-Emu, CidalEaze, DermacinRx Lidocan III, DermacinRx Lidogel, DermacinRx Lidorex, DERMALID, Dologesic, Ela-Max, GEN7T, Glydo, Gold Bond, LidaFlex, LidaMantle, Lido King Maximum Strength, Lidocan, Lidocare, Lidoderm, LidoDose, LidoDose Pediatric, Lidofore, LidoHeal-90, LIDO-K , LidoLite, Lidomar , Lidomark, LidoPure, LidoReal-30, LidoRx, Lidosense 4 , Lidosense 5, Lidosol, Lidosol-50, LIDO-SORB, Lidotral, Lidovix L, LIDOZION, Lidozo, LMX 4, LMX 4 with Tegaderm, LMX 5, LTA, Lubricaine For Her, Lydexa, Moxicaine, Numbonex, ReadySharp Lidocaine, RectaSmoothe, RectiCare, Salonpas Lidocaine, Senatec, Solarcaine, SUN BURNT PLUS, Tranzarel, Xyliderm, Xylocaine, Xylocaine Dental, Xylocaine in Dextrose, Xylocaine MPF, Xylocaine Topical, Xylocaine Topical Jelly, Xylocaine Topical Solution, Xylocaine Viscous, Zilactin-L, Zingo, Zionodi, ZTlido
Adrenaclick, Adrenalin, Auvi-Q, Epifrin, EpiPen, Epipen Jr , Primatene Mist, SYMJEPI, Twinject
A/T/S, Akne-mycin, E.E.S., Emcin Clear , EMGEL, E-Mycin, ERYC, Erycette, Eryderm , Erygel, Erymax, EryPed, Ery-Tab, Erythra Derm , Erythrocin, Erythrocin Lactobionate, Erythrocin Stearate, Ilosone, Ilotycin, My-E, PCE, PCE Dispertab , Romycin, Staticin, T-Stat
AK-Tracin, Baciguent, BaciiM, Baci-Rx, Ocu-Tracin
A-Methapred, Depmedalone-40, Depmedalone-80 , Depo-Medrol, Medrol, Medrol Dosepak, Solu-Medrol
Betimol, Blocadren, Istalol, Timoptic, Timoptic Ocudose, Timoptic Ocumeter, Timoptic-XE
Alphagan, Alphagan P, LUMIFY, Mirvaso
Diamox, Diamox Sequels
Aridol, BRONCHITOL, Osmitrol , Resectisol
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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