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Body + BrainBody & Brain

Lasik Surgery Patients Suffer Serious Side Effects

ByAparna NathanNOVA NextNOVA Next

Every year, over 700,000 people discard their glasses and undergo Lasik surgery to regain nearly-perfect eyesight. But as the procedure reaches a two-decade milestone, stories of debilitating side effects are coming to light.

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Unlike glasses and contacts, which work outside the eye, Lasik works from within. Our eyes work like tiny cameras. The cornea—a prism-like dome in the front of your eye—and an internal lens focus light on the back surface of the eye, creating a high-definition image. But if you’re near- or farsighted, your eye isn’t able to focus the light precisely. Glasses and contacts pre-focus the light before it even enters your eye.

But with Lasik, the common name for Laser-Assisted In Situ Keratomileusis, surgeons re-sculpt the cornea itself to change the angle at which it focuses the light. They cut a thin flap on the surface and fold it back to allow access to a laser that re-shapes the cornea.

It may seem logical that such an invasive procedure would have side effects. Here’s Roni Caryn Rabin, reporting for the New York Times on a clinical trial carried out last year by the Food and Drug Administration:

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Three months after surgery, however, glare, halos and double vision were common, affecting 50 to 60 percent of all patients, with up to 5 percent characterizing them as “very” or “extremely” bothersome.

Even after six months, some 41 percent of patients reported visual aberrations, with nearly 2 percent—or one in 50—saying the symptoms presented “a lot of difficulty” or “so much difficulty that I can no longer do some of my usual activities.”

Doctors carefully screen candidates to ensure that they understand the risks and meet the proper criteria. It’s considered an elective surgery—no one is required to get Lasik. But as more patients go under the laser, more horror stories are emerging, including chronic physical and mental pain, and even suicide. Here’s Rabin again:

Katie Enders, 35, a kindergarten teacher in Cleveland, said her 2006 Lasik surgery left her feeling she had “paper cuts in her eyes.” She saw over a dozen doctors and tried several pain medications, finally getting relief from a pain pump implanted in her abdomen that carries a constant infusion of anesthetic up her spine.

Although only a minority of patients experience adverse outcomes, they are banding together to increase awareness of the dark underbelly of the seemingly-glamorous procedure. It’ll take more research to understand why exactly Lasik causes so many issues for some patients, and to figure out whether there really is a perfect fix for blurry eyesight.