Is LASIK Surgery Right for You?

Have you ever woken up, stuck your hand out for your glasses and realized the irony that they are exactly what you need to find them? Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up and just be able to see?

This scenario has played out for me more than once. If it rings true for you, too, you’ve probably considered laser vision correction, commonly known as LASIK, at least in passing.

rewire pbs living lasik
Source: Journal of Cataract & Refractive Surgery

But what is it, anyway? The LASIK procedure “sculpts the cornea to change its focal length and improve (primarily) distance vision” using a laser, said Philip Sheils, a Rochester, New York-based ophthalmologist who has administered the surgery for many years.

Sounds like a quick fix. But not everyone’s eyeballs are suited for LASIK. Certain criteria have to be met to make you an ideal candidate. There’s even a certain age that makes the procedure the most successful.

Is LASIK right for you?

A thorough eye exam and conversation with your doctor can help determine if you’re a good candidate for LASIK, a procedure that the Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgery says has been performed more than 16 million times around the world since its inception.

But before you even take that step, there are some questions you can answer for yourself.

  • Have you had a stable eye prescription for at least one year? This is recommended by the FDA and tends to limit the procedure to people in their mid-twenties to about 40 (at which point people may require reading glasses).
  • Is your corrected vision at least 20/40? The Flaum Eye Institute at the University of Rochester identifies this as a criteria for the procedure.
  • Do you have healthy, disease-free eyes? Sheils says his main criteria is always “a healthy eye to begin with, with no other eye disease, and a thick enough cornea to be stable after treatment,” which can be measured at a preliminary appointment.
  • Are you trying to get pregnant, or are you currently pregnant or breastfeeding? The hormone fluctuations associated with pregnancy and birth can decrease the success of LASIK, with some doctors recommending you wait up to six months after finishing breastfeeding to undergo the procedure.
  • Do you have diseases or take medications that affect your hormones, vision or immune system? LASIK might not be right for you.
  • Do you participate in contact sports, especially ones where face injury is common? You too should consider other options.

Sheils recommended talking with a doctor about refractive lens exchange—which replaces the cornea with a synthetic lens—or about the advanced contact options available today. For example, a newer method, orthokeratology, requires patients to wear lenses in their sleep. The lenses reshape the cornea throughout the night with the goal of making them unnecessary during the day. 

Once you’ve identified yourself as a good candidate, it’s time to meet with a doctor and see if they agree. A 2006 British National Health Service study found that the surgery is “safe and efficacious” in appropriately selected patients and a 2009 U.S. study found 95.4 percent satisfaction among recipients. “Appropriately selected” is key here, and that’s a call for you and your eye doctor to make.

What are the risks and side effects?

While the satisfaction rate is high, a 2014 FDA study reported that almost half of patients surveyed developed at least one visual symptom (for example, haloes around bright lights, dry eye or trouble adjusting to light contrast) within three months of surgery.

Scott Joerger received the surgery 20 years ago in Canada and recalls seeing haloes around bright lights and experiencing sensitivity to brightness contrast the first few years after.

“It was kind of bad at first, but not unbearable, and much better now,” he said.

David Lochner, who got LASIK about eight years ago, also recalls haloes when looking at lights at night, but this went away after a few months.

Sheils said he advises all of his patients to expect visual symptoms but noted that the severity and duration depend on the individual.

“The less nearsighted (the patient is), the fewer aberrations we see after,” Sheils said.

LASIK might seem like a magical fix, and it can be for some people, at least for awhile. But others require further procedures to correct or continue to improve their vision, and some will still need glasses or contact lenses at some point in their lives. Both Joerger and Lochner, now in their 50s, use reading glasses today.

What to expect if you choose LASIK

If you’re thinking about LASIK, read as much as you can about the procedure. The U.S. Food and Drug Aministration provides a detailed explanation of what to expect from preparation, procedure and recovery. Do your research when choosing a surgeon by looking into the specific procedure they use, the device they use and their experience with both. Don’t base your decision on cost or convenience alone, and be wary of guarantees like “20/20 or your money back.”

rewire pbs living lasik
Source: Mayo Clinic

Results are quick. Sheils said most of his patients report settled and improved vision within a week to 10 days, many by the next day, and minimal or cured visual symptoms within a few months.

Lochner said his vision was about 20/400 before the procedure and immediately after measured at 20/15. Although he was nervous going in, the procedure was very quick.

“I had to protect my eyes by wearing some type of goggles for about a week,” along with taking antibiotic drops for a while, he said. “There was some relatively minor pain in my eyes for a few days.”

Joerger said his surgery took about half an hour and felt “awkward but not uncomfortable.” He said he experienced some dryness after, which eye drops alleviated, but mostly recalled the wonder of being able to see perfectly the next morning.

“I decided I would take a walk and I remember more than anything else that I could read license plates for the cars that were passing,” something he found incredible considering he was almost legally blind beforehand, he said.

Miranda Konar

Miranda Konar is a Rochester, NY native and Wesleyan University grad working in Minneapolis as an after-school educator and opinionated ice cream scooper (all salted everything). Ask her about her favorite historical dramas, but only if you really have the time. You can reach her at [email protected].