Can Laser Surgery Be Safer Than Contacts?

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The idea of getting LASIK surgery to correct your vision has crossed your mind more than once, but eye surgery seems scary compared to popping in a pair of contact lenses every day to help you see.

However, the results of a recent study reveal that the short-term risks of LASIK, a laser eye surgery used to correct vision, is actually lower than the risk of using contact lenses.

"The public and ophthalmologists have assumed that surgery, while attractive, constitutes the higher risk," wrote Dr. William Mathers, a professor of ophthalmology from the Oregon Health and Science University in a letter published in Archives of Ophthalmology. "This may not be correct."

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The biggest problem associated with use of contact lenses is infection, which can cause just a minor problem, treatable with antibiotic drops, or a more serious problem resulting in vision loss. In fact, it is estimated that 5 percent of patients who develop a bacterial eye infection will have some degree of vision loss.

"One shouldn't assume that lenses are safe," said Dr. Joseph Dello Russo, an ophthalmologist from New York, in a press release.

About 20 million Americans wear contact lenses. And a recent review by Matthers shows that people who wear contact lenses daily for 30 years have a 1 out of 100 chance of developing an eye infection. For people who wear extended-wear contacts overnight and for several days straight, this risk is even greater.

The risk of LASIK surgery, on the other hand, includes minor infection, which is usually prevented through the use of antibiotic drops beginning immediately after surgery, and vision loss. Previous studies have estimated the risk of infection after LASIK to be 1 case in every 800 patients. And Mathers estimates the risk of significant vision loss from LASIK to be 1 case in 10,000 patients. Approximately 1 million people in the United States have laser surgery every year.

The key difference between contacts and LASIK, according to Mathers, is that "complications from contact lenses can accumulate over years, whereas those from surgery occur over a brief time."

You can lower your risk of developing an infection from contact lenses by taking proper care of them. That means washing your hands immediately before touching your lenses, storing them in sterile solution and always taking them out before sleep. But, even the perfect contacts-wearer can still experience problems.

"Even with perfect care of your contacts, the risks for infection and vision loss are still there, " said Mathers.

New technologies, however, may improve the safety of contact lenses, but laser surgery, too, should improve as innovations make the procedure even better.

"Laser surgery is as safe, and probably safer, than long-term use of contact lenses," said Mathers.

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