If you’re considering laser eye surgery for refractive vision correction and started some online research, you may have run across stories of surgical complications that would make any reasonable person hesitate. But when it comes to making this important decision, not all surgical centers are created equal. It’s important to know the whole story.
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So how do you know what’s true and what’s not? Ophthalmologist Steven Wilson, MD, dispels some common myths about laser eye surgery.
Myth #1: I’ll still need reading glasses
“Not necessarily,” says Dr. Wilson. “The average age of patients receiving laser eye surgery at our institution is about 41.” He says many of his patients who are over age 40 have what is called monovision with either LASIK (Laser-Assisted In Situ Keratomileusis) or PRK (Photorefractive Keratectomy).
“The dominant eye is fully corrected for distance and the non-dominant eye is left slightly nearsighted, which helps with near vision,” he says.
While most people don’t have any trouble adjusting, doctors can simulate the procedure by prescribing contact lenses that mimic the effects of the procedure. This way, the person can test how well they will adjust before undergoing surgery.
Myth #2: Laser eye surgery is risky
As with any surgery, there are some risks, but when performed properly and with the right precautions, laser eye surgery is amazingly safe, Dr. Wilson says. “In the 16,000 procedures I’ve performed, one person ended up with a mild infection that cleared up quickly with antibiotics,” he says. In contrast, I personally treat several patients every week with contact lens-induced corneal infections.
To prevent infection, doctors prescribe antibiotics for patients to take a few days after eye surgery.
The most common risk associated with laser eye surgery is transient dry eye. “There’s no evidence that laser eye surgery causes permanent dry eye,” says Dr. Wilson. “If treated properly, most people have no more symptoms of dry eye than anyone else.”
There’s also a slight risk that your vision won’t be fully corrected.
“The risk of that is less than 1 percent,” Dr. Wilson says. “That usually only happens in people who need very high corrections. They generally know going into surgery there’s a possibility their eyes won’t be fully corrected, but they’d rather be at a -1 or -2 diopters than a -10 or -12 diopters.”
Myth #3: You can’t correct far-sightedness or astigmatism
“We can correct almost all refractive errors individually, or combined, with the lasers we use today, with the exception of extremely high corrections,” says Dr. Wilson. “Many other patients with very high corrections can be treated with phakic intraocular lenses (IOL).”
What about the negative stories I’ve seen online?
“Most of those sites were started by angry patients who had their surgery done at a place that wasn’t reputable,” Dr. Wilson says.
“Some of them may have been candidates for PRK, but they went to a center that only does LASIK. Patients who aren’t properly selected for surgery can end up with a condition called ectasia, which can result in having to wear contacts or even eventually needing a corneal transplant. In other cases, patients may have had dry eye before their procedures, but they weren’t treated for it before surgery,” he says.
Choosing a surgeon
If you are considering refractive surgery, make sure you:
- Compare. It’s important to think beyond the risk involved with the procedure itself. Risk also varies from device to device depending on the manufacturer, and from surgeon to surgeon depending on their level of experience with a particular procedure.
- Don’t base your decision simply on cost and don’t settle for the first eye center, doctor, or procedure you investigate. It’s important to consider that these decisions about your eyes and the refractive surgery will affect you for the rest of your life.
- Be wary of eye centers with overblown claims. If you see them advertise, “20/20 vision or your money back” or “package deals,” be skeptical. There are never any guarantees in medicine.
- Read. It is important for you to do your research. Read the patient handbook your doctor should give you, created by the manufacturer of the device used to perform the procedure. Ask for this handbook and talk to your doctor about his/her outcomes (successes as well as complications) compared to the results of studies outlined in the handbook.
“Keep in mind when choosing a surgeon, it’s not how many surgeries the surgeon has done, it’s how many were done correctly,” Dr. Wilson says.