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Correcting Vision With Refractive Eye Surgery

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Vision problems are common. It used to be that glasses or contact lenses were the only option. Today, eye surgery has the potential to correct vision without these visual aids.

How the Eye Works

When you look at an object, the light the object reflects is bent or refracted through the cornea—the clear layer that forms the front window of the eye—and then through the lens, to land on the retina. The nerve endings in the retina send signals through the optic nerve to the brain, where the image is recognized.

The most common eye problems result from refractive errors caused by poorly focused light waves. This can be due to a misshaped eyeball, cornea, or lens. The 4 basic types of errors are:

Making light rays focus on the retina properly will reduce refractive error. Traditionally, glasses and contact lenses correct the error and enhance vision. Today, more and more people are opting for refractive surgery. By changing the shape of the cornea, which is responsible for most of the eye's focusing power, refractive surgery can decrease or eliminate dependency on glasses or contact lenses. It cannot however, improve vision beyond what glasses or contacts were able to accomplish. Below are the most common types of refractive surgery.

Photorefractive Keratectomy (PRK)

PRK reduces refractive error by sculpting the surface of the cornea using a laser. It may be used in people with:

The Procedure

  • Prior to the procedure, a map is made of the affected eye's cornea. A computer uses this map to develop a program to guide the laser.
  • The eye is anesthetized before surgery with eye drops.
  • An excimer (cold) laser is used to first remove the layer of the epithelium cells over the eye. The epithelium is the wet outer coating over the cornea.
  • Using the excimer laser and the predetermined program, the surgeon reshapes the cornea by removing thin layers of its outer surface.
  • A soft contact lens is placed over the eye as a bandage.
  • Total procedure time is about 10 minutes.

It will take a couple of days for the epithelium to regrow over the cornea. For the first few weeks, your vision may fluctuate between clear and blurry. Functional vision returns in 6 weeks, and vision stabilizes over the next 6 months.

Laser-Assisted in situ Keratomileusis (LASIK)

LASIK uses the same laser as PRK, but adds an additional step that allows the treatment of more significant refractive errors with less postoperative pain and faster visual recovery. For this reason, it has become the most widely performed of the refractive surgeries. It may be used in people with:

The Procedure

  • The eye is anesthetized before surgery with eye drops.
  • A knife, called a microkeratome, is used to cut a flap in the cornea, leaving a hinge at one end of the knife.
  • The flap is folded back to reveal the stroma, which is the middle section of the cornea.
  • Pulses from a computer-controlled excimer laser vaporize a portion of the stroma, and the flap is replaced without the use of sutures.
  • Total procedure time is about 15 minutes.

Removing the tissue on the inside of the cornea changes its shape, which reduces the refractive error.

It can take up to 3-6 months to for your vision to stabilize.

Alternative Procedures

Other procedures that are being used more commonly include:

If you are considering refractive surgery, be sure that your surgeon explains all possibilities to you and gives you a convincing reason why the proposed procedure is best for you.

Making the Decision

As with any medical procedure, there are risks involved with refractive surgery. Some risks and possible complications include:

Not all people with refractive errors are good candidates for refractive surgery. Talk with your doctor to determine what line of treatment is right for you.


American Academy of Ophthalmology

American College of Eye Surgeons
American Board of Eye Surgery


Canadian Ophthalmological Society

Health Canada


Alternative refractive surgery procedures. American Academy of Ophthalmology website. Available at: Accessed May 3, 2016.

LASIK—laser eye surgery. American Academy of Ophthalmology website. Available at: Accessed May 3, 2016.

Patient information. International Society of Refractive Surgery website. Available at: Accessed May 3, 2016.

Photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) eye surgery. Cleveland Clinic website. Available at: Accessed May 3, 2016.

What is refractive surgery? American Academy of Ophthalmology website. Available at: Accessed May 3, 2016.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 5/3/2016