This past week, much attention has been given to the downside of LASIK eye surgery. In America alone, more than 7 million people have elected to have the high-tech laser surgery. Best case scenario: 20/20 vision and a future free of eyeglasses and contact lenses. Worst case scenario: blurred double vision and debilitating eye pain, which can be life-changing, and in one case even contributed to a young man’s suicide.
The Food and Drug Administration estimates that in the ten years LASIK has been practiced, 5% of patients are unsatisfied and 1% experience the severe and debilitating symptoms mentioned above.
Last Friday (April 25), LASIK recipients and family members spoke before a panel of medical advisers to the Food and Drug Administration. The panel called the hearing because they heard many complaints from angry patients—complaints that were not included in reports they got from LASIK manufacturers and the health care community.
A one percent negative outcome is not that bad, claim LASIK advocates. But over ten years, that one percent adds up to 70,000 people–in just America alone–who experience strong pain and severe dry eye, and have difficulty driving at night, watching movies, and performing other every day activities. “I see multiple moons,” said LASIK recipient David Shell angrily, according to the Associated Press. “Anybody want to have Lasik now?” The AP also reports that Gerard Dorrian read an excerpt from a suicide note left by his son, whose LASIK procedure turned out poorly: “As soon as my eyes went bad, I fell into a deeper depression than I’d ever experienced, and I couldn’t get out.”
What makes LASIK so good is also what makes it so bad: the surgery is permanent.
For around $2,000 per eye, a surgeon will cut a flap in your cornea, peel the flap back, and reshape your cornea by removing tissue with a pulsing laser. For the 95% of patients pleased with the procedure, vision noticeably improves over the next few days, and then plateaus at a level of 20/20 or sometimes better.
But for the 350,000 who are unpleased with the surgery, and the 70,000 who experience serious difficulties because of it, this permanence makes LASIK particularly devastating. Once the tissue in the cornea is removed, there is no putting it back.
The FDA is now calling for clearer and more direct warnings, so that patients have all of the information they need to make an informed decision about whether the surgery is right for them. Patients should know they could develop dry eye, have blurry vision, or even need reading glasses down the line (even if they are nearsighted before the surgery).
But even with all of this information before them, patients still rely on doctors to help them make responsible choices. It seems that many of the problems experienced by early LASIK recipients is due to the fact that they should never have had the surgery in the first place.
Only 3 people out of 4 who seek LASIK are good candidates for the procedure.
Patients with dry eye or large pupils are among those who, upon consulting a doctor, may be advised not to go ahead with the surgery. Those with such conditions are often the ones who experience the more extreme symptoms afterward. Some argue that in LASIK’s earlier days, these restrictions were not fully understood, but this is no longer a valid excuse. With laser surgery being such a profitable industry (especially given how quick and simple the surgery is), it is hard to avoid the question: Are surgeons providing LASIK to patients who shouldn’t have it, in the interest of profit?
To date, hundreds of medical malpractice lawsuits have been filed against surgeons and clinics who inappropriately administered this high-tech and permanent surgery.
When done correctly on patients for whom it is safe, LASIK can be life-changing in a positive way. But for those who were not given all the facts, or whose doctor performed the procedure in an unsafe manner, that life-changing surgery can be devastating.