Not too long ago, patients with nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism basically had two options: eyeglasses or contact lenses. Although these methods provided temporary vision correction, each could be a hassle. Glasses weren't especially suitable to an active lifestyle, while contacts had to be put in, taken out, and cleaned.

But all of that changed in 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved LASIK for patients with mild to moderate nearsightedness; a few years later, the FDA approved the procedure to correct farsightedness and astigmatism. Since that time, more than 9 million Americans have set their sights on LASIK to improve both their eyesight and their quality of life.

Understanding LASIK

LASIK, which stands for "laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis," is a surgical procedure that uses an excimer laser to permanently change the shape of the cornea, the clear layer covering of the front of the eye. According to the FDA, a mechanical microkeratome (blade device) or a laser keratome (laser device) is used to cut a flap in the cornea, and a hinge is left at one end of this flap. The flap is folded back, revealing the stroma, or middle section of the cornea. Pulses from a computer-controlled laser vaporize a portion of the stroma, and the flap is replaced.

Prior to the surgery, the patient's cornea is examined to determine the amount and location of tissue to be removed. Patients are generally instructed to stop wearing contact lenses a few weeks beforehand and may be prescribed an antibiotic to minimize the risk of infection afterward. The procedure is typically performed while the patient is awake, although he or she is usually sedated. After surgery, patients may be instructed to use antibiotic and anti-inflammatory eye drops. They may also be given a dark pair of goggles to protect their eyes from bright lights and to prevent any friction while they're asleep.

Could You Be a LASIK Candidate?

Patient-satisfaction rates for LASIK are high; in fact, a 2003 study published in the journal Ophthalmology found that 97 percent of subjects would recommend the procedure to a friend. However, experts are quick to point out that LASIK is not for everyone.

As with all surgeries, LASIK comes with some risks. Complications may occur, the most common being dry eyes, overcorrection, undercorrection, light sensitivity, halos, and double vision. Be sure to discuss these with your doctor beforehand. In addition, according to the FDA's guidelines, you're probably not a candidate if:

  • You're not a risk taker. Keep in mind that certain complications may be unavoidable in a small percentage of patients.
  • It will jeopardize your career. Some jobs prohibit refractive procedures such as LASIK, so be sure to check with your employer beforehand.
  • You required a change in your contact lens or glasses prescription in the past year. If this is the case, you may have refractive instability and should discuss potential risks with your doctor.
  • You have a disease or are on medications that may affect wound healing. People with certain conditions, such lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, or HIV, may have difficulty healing after LASIK.
  • You participate in contact sports. This includes boxing, wrestling, martial arts, or other activities that may put you at risk to suffering a blow to the face or eyes.
  • You're not an adult.The procedure is not currently approved for persons under the age of 18.

In addition, cost may be an issue. Most health insurance plans do not cover the cost of LASIK, so it's important to check your policy beforehand. If your plan doesn't cover the procedure or you don't have insurance, there may be other options. Companies such as Capital One offer low APRs and flexible payment options for LASIK, making it easier for individuals to achieve their dream of crystal-clear vision.