As of this year, an estimated 30 million people have undergone laser eye surgery. But what does it really feel like to go under the laser, are there any risks involved, and is it worth the cost?
I’d often wondered this, having worn specs for long distance every day since being a teenager. Unable to get around without my frames, I’d become increasingly fed up with the faff of fitting glasses around my active lifestyle (there’s only so many embarrassing swimming pool incidents, caused by being unable to see, that a girl can take!) and I was ready for a change.
Having chatted to lots of friends who’d had laser eye surgery and all said it had changed their life, I booked a consultation with my local Optimax clinic having decided they were my best bet – loads of experience, great online reviews and convenient for me to get to. Welcomed in with a coffee and lots of friendly faces, the optometrist checked my vision and outlined the facts.
There are two types of laser eye surgery available: LASIK and LASEK. Each patient may be suitable for either or both depending on their type of prescription and vision health although LASIK is the more popular option with most people able to drive and see well the next day, while LASEK has a recovery period of more like a week. The surgeon usually advises in the pre-op assessment which one you’re best suited to. I was having LASIK.
Kana Odedra, my optometrist, explained to me that, as with any surgery, there were going to be risks involved. Infection that can lead to complications was the biggest risk, meaning I’d need to be careful the first few weeks after surgery. Chronic dry eyes and poor vision at night or when driving were also possible side-effects I couldn’t rule out as surgery affects everyone differently.
But he made it clear that my ultimate fear of losing my vision altogether was 0.001 per cent, if that. My surgeon, Dr Mughal, who I met later added that in the 20,000 laser eye surgeries he’d done, no one had ever gone blind.
I was told the worst-case scenario was that the surgery might not fully correct my vision and I may need to continue to wear glasses or have the surgery again, but my vision would not be any worse. And having been very impressed from the beginning at how thoroughly my vision had been checked (my regular optician's examinations had never been this in-depth) I felt reassured I was in good hands.
Plenty of thinking time later, I decided to go ahead. And it was without doubt one of the best decisions I've ever made.
On the day of surgery
There is no point sugar-coating the day of treatment. It can be nerve-wracking, it can be overwhelming (I promptly burst into tears as soon as my treatment was over) and there is some discomfort (but no pain) involved. But it is just a day. In fact, for me it was just a few hours that I would't be in a massive hurry to repeat. And the anticipation of what will happen is definitely far worse than what does actually take place.
Be prepared for the actual surgery to be fairly clinical. The staff will be in scrubs, the machine looks a bit daunting and it can feel a bigger procedure than it is. But really it's quite a lot like having a filling at the dentist.
I was asked to lay back, while the surgeon applied anaesthetic drops to my eye that would stop me from wanting to blink. I'd disbelieved this right up until being in the room and had anticipated my eyes rolling all over the place as I desperately wanted to blink but it was fine.
The surgeon then placed a suction ring over my eye and as the first laser got to work, my vision vanished and was replaced by white lights. I began to feel a gentle pressure on my eye, just like pressing the heel of your hand into your eye for about 30 seconds.
Then it was time for the second laser machine which is all talk and no trousers. It roars and clicks and makes a right racket and a bit of a smell but it's completely painless and the lasers are invisible. It also uses a clever tracking device that means if you're not looking at exactly the right spot the laser will cut out so there's no danger of the laser treating the wrong bit of your eye. For me it took just a magical 20 seconds on that second laser, one eye then the other and then it was all over. I'd been in the theatre in total less than five minutes.
I asked Dr Mughal to later explain in more depth what the surgery actually did to my eyes in that moment. "The suction bit is called Intralase LASIK and that stabilises the eye ready for the laser. The first laser then creates an ultra-thin flap on your eye that I then used blunt instrumentation to gently lift up to reveal the bit of the eye we laser," said Dr Mughal.
To make it clear, if you think of the eye a bit like an onion, made up of lots and lots of layers, this flap is just the very top layer that peels back on a hinge like a lid to your eyes. "The second laser then works on the cornea – that's the clear, dome-shaped surface that covers the front of the eye. The laser works by wiping off little layers of the cornea bit by bit to a set amount, essentially changing the shape of your cornea and in turn correcting your vision's prescription," says Dr Mughal.
Immediately after surgery
Straight after surgery I could see, although things were a bit blurry around the edges. Dr Mughal was delighted with how it had gone and I was packed off home with a bag of lots of different eye drops, and plenty of warnings not to touch my eyes.
On the journey home, my eyes started to get up to some mischief, stinging, feeling sore and it was hard to open them. Getting into the house was a bit of a feat (I'd recommend having someone with you at home for the first few hours if you can) but instinct takes over and more eye drops in, I headed straight to bed with my very attractive eye patches on to stop me rubbing my eyes in my sleep.
The pain here was the worst it got all day and is best compared to when you get shampoo in your eyes. My eyes streamed, I had a bit of a headache and I wanted to lock my eyes shut. But once I fell asleep I woke to find the worst part was over. Just as soon as the discomfort had come on, it went away. The rest of the day I could get around, and already see better than I had before, but I did do a lot of napping in a dark room.
The next day
The day after, I woke up feeling brand new and could immediately see really well without any glasses. From the shampoo bottle to road signs, all day I, challenged myself to read everything that I'd never been able to see without specs before (no doubt to everyone else's annoyance).
At my aftercare appointment, the optometrist Kana was really happy with my vision and I got the all clear to drive again that day.
I couldn't believe how instant the results had been and even though it was the sunniest day we'd had all year, with the help of my first pair of non-prescription sunglasses in decades, I could see with no discomfort.
The first month
For the next four weeks, my vision was a bit hit and miss with some days definitely better than others. On the worst day I had a painful headache and the vision in my left eye was very blurry.
As my job involves spending all day looking at a computer screen, that didn't help with the headaches. The first couple of weeks were also a bit Hound of Baskervilles as my eyes were very red and bloodshot but day by day it got better and I never had to reach for my old spectacles.
At the end of the first month, the headaches petered out and my new vision really started coming into its own.
3 months later
I’ve just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Asia and am in training for a big charity fundraising hike. Both of these things I would not have been able to do as easily wearing specs and it’s now that I feel like I’m reaping the full, amazing benefits of my surgery.
For the first time, I hadn’t had to faff about sorting out contact lenses and taking off my glasses to swim in the sea on holiday. As the sun beat down, I didn’t have that palava of changing from my prescription sunglasses into my normal glasses every time I came inside or went outdoors.
I could change my hairstyle for the first time in years now my glasses didn’t frame my face in a certain way. And back home, booking classes at the gym or setting off on long walks to train for my hike, I didn’t have to think about glasses falling off my face as I worked out or getting the glass splattered with rain as I walked.
These are all little things but together they’ve made my life so much easier. At my three-month appointment with Optimax I was finally signed off with 20/20 vision and a full bill of eye health. I can’t believe what a difference it’s made and I’m so thankful I made that life-changing decision to take the plunge and have laser eye surgery. I’ve no regrets whatsoever.
Good to know
Dr Mughal explains a few facts it’s good to bear in mind before considering surgery:
- There isn’t an upper age limit on who can have laser eye surgery although it does depend on the health of your eye and your risk of cataracts. You’ll also need to bear in mind any eye conditions in your family that may affect surgery. If you’re not suitable for laser eye surgery, there is a new type of surgery available that may be better if you’re a bit older. This is lens exchange surgery where the surgeon removes your natural lens and puts an implant in its place. Optimax clinics offer this too.
- Having laser eye surgery does not increase your risk of age-related eye conditions such as macular degeneration and cataracts
- If you had laser eye surgery many years ago and have now found some of the prescription has come back, you can usually have repeat surgery if scans show there are no medical issues with the eyes
- Wear varifocals? You may still be able to have surgery. Although laser eye surgery isn’t intended to give you multifocal vision you can have monovision treatment which is where the surgeon treats one eye for distance and one eye for near sight and then your brain adapts to this. Usually you’ll be given a trial with contact lenses to try out this monovision before the surgeon recreates this with the laser.
To book a consultation with Optimax call 0800 093 1110 or visit www.optimax.co.uk