Laser Refractive Surgery:
From One Medical Student to Another
Laser vision correction is the world's most popular elective surgery with roughly 700,000 LASIK procedures performed in the U.S. each year (AAO, 2008). Since refractive errors affect half of the U.S. population 20 years of age and older, it comes as no surprise that many people are turning to laser vision correction to obtain improved vision (Vitale et al. 2008). Due to its popularity, medical students will inevitably be asked by patients, family, and friends about refractive eye surgery. It is important to have a basic understanding of laser vision correction, outcomes, and associated risks.
The goal of laser vision correction is to decrease dependence on glasses and contact lenses by focusing light more effectively on the retina. While there are a number of different surgeries used to achieve this result, this tutorial will focus specifically on laser vision correction, which consists of laser in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) and photorefractive keratectomy (PRK). In the U.S., LASIK comprises about 85% of the laser vision correction market with PRK making up the other 15% (ISRS 2009). The cost of surgery varies in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars and is not covered by insurance, similar to cosmetic surgery.
Laser vision correction is regarded as highly effective with studies showing 94% of patients achieving uncorrected visual acuity of 20/40 or better at 12 months (Salz et al. 2002), which is the visual acuity needed to drive without corrective lenses in most states. Smaller studies have shown that up to 93% of patients with lower refractive errors can obtain 20/20 vision without correction (Stonecipher et al. 2008). A meta-analysis completed in 2008 revealed that 95% of LASIK patients are satisfied with their improved vision (Solomon et al. 2009). To better understand how these surgeries improve vision, we need to review the relevant anatomy.