Laser eye surgery

Expert reviewer Professor Simon Taylor, Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon.
Next review due June 2019.

Laser eye surgery is a procedure which can correct problems with your eyesight that are usually corrected with glasses or contact lenses. Also known as laser refractive surgery, it changes the shape of your cornea, the clear layer covering the front of your eye. This helps you focus images correctly at the back of your eye.

There are various types of laser surgery. You may be familiar with the name of the most commonly used type – LASIK. Laser eye surgery can be used to correct short and long-sightedness, and astigmatism. It can’t directly reverse presbyopia (eyesight getting poorer through ageing).

An older woman smiling

What do I need to know about my surgeon?

Laser eye surgery is carried out by ophthalmologists; specialists in eye conditions, treatment and surgery. It’s very important that wherever you have laser eye surgery that you check that your surgeon is properly qualified. Your surgeon must be registered with the General Medical Council (GMC).

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists have introduced a non-mandatory assessment that leads to a certificate. It’s estimated that around half of all surgeons who do laser eye surgery have this certificate. The College recommends that in addition to being on the specialist GMC register and having this certificate, surgeons should also have had additional training specifically in laser eye surgery. 

How do I find a surgeon?

Laser surgery for correction of long-sightedness and short-sightedness isn’t usually available on the NHS. This is because these conditions can be treated with glasses or contact lenses. However, there are a few exceptions to this, such as if you’ve had a previous cornea transplant – ask your surgeon for more information. You may be able to have the procedure at an NHS hospital, but they’ll usually charge a fee.

To find a surgeon, speak to your optometrist (your optician). They can advise you on clinics in your area and may be able to refer you to a surgeon

If you want to find a surgeon yourself, The Royal College of Ophthalmologists has a search tool you can use. However, this doesn’t mean that the college recommends the surgeon, but you can see their specialist areas of knowledge and check their credentials. You can also check them on the General Medical Council website.

Who can have laser eye surgery?

Laser eye surgery isn’t suitable for everyone. Most clinics will only carry out this procedure if you:

  • are 21 or over
  • are in good general health
  • have healthy eyes
  • have had a stable prescription (very little change in your eyesight) for two to three years

There may be specific health reasons that laser eye surgery isn’t your best option. Your surgeon will discuss these with you. Laser eye surgery isn’t usually carried out while you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Before your laser eye surgery

Before your laser eye surgery, you should have an assessment appointment. You’ll have a variety of tests to check the health of your eyes and your eyesight, and you should meet your surgeon (ophthalmologist). This is your chance to discuss the benefits and possible risks of laser eye surgery.

It’s possible for you to be able have one eye or both eyes done at the same time.

Be aware that you may not be able to drive for a few hours afterwards, as you may be having drops that blur your vision. It’s important that you don’t wear your contact lenses to your assessment or your surgery. You’ll need to leave them out for several days (soft lenses) or several weeks (gas permeable/hard lenses) beforehand. Your contact lenses change the shape of your cornea, so you need to leave them out to give your eyes time to change back. If you don’t do this, your surgeon won’t be able to take the measurements they need.

What happens during laser eye surgery?

Be prepared for a stay of at least one hour on your treatment day. Ask someone to come with you and drive you home afterwards.

You’ll lie on a reclining chair under the laser. Your surgeon will put local anaesthetic drops in your eye. They’ll then use a special lid ‘clip’ to keep your eye open during the procedure.

The exact details of the laser surgery may vary slightly depending on which type you’re having. For LASIK, your surgeon will place a suction ring on your eye. This flattens the cornea and helps stop your eye moving. Your vision will be dim, or it will seem dark while this suction ring is in place.

You’ll look at a flashing red or green light, and then your surgeon will fire the laser. This takes around 30 seconds. You may be aware of a faint smell of burning.

Afterwards, your surgeon will put a plastic shield on your eye which should stay in place for 24 hours.

After your laser eye surgery

Your surgeon may recommend that you wear a protective plastic shield over your eyes at night for the first week or so. They’ll give you drops containing antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medicines, and artificial tears.

Most people go back to work within a few days to a week. Ask your surgeon about when it’s safe to drive again – this may be a week or two.

Your vision is likely to become stable within about a month. However, it may take up to 9 months in some cases.

What are the complications of laser eye surgery?

Complications happen in fewer than one in 20 people who have the procedure. However, with all surgical procedures, there are some risks – make sure your surgeon talks to you about them.

Some people get complications which eventually disappear in time, although in a few people they may be permanent. These include: 

  • dry eyes
  • hazy or blurry vision
  • glare or halo effects – especially when driving at night
  • scratchiness

Some people need a second treatment because of under or over correction of their eyesight. Or you may still need to wear glasses for some tasks. Very occasionally, the cornea can weaken and affect your vision. It’s also possible that your vision may become worse than it was before laser eye surgery.

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    • A patients’ guide to excimer laser refractive surgery. The Royal College of Ophthalmologists, 2011.
    • Laser refractive surgery. The Royal College of Ophthalmologists., published 10 July 2014
    • LASIK - laser eye surgery. American Academy of Ophthalmology., published 12 December 2015
    • What is an optometrist? The College of Optometrists., accessed 26 May 2016
    • Frequently asked questions. The Royal College of Ophthalmologists., published 27 February 2015
    • Photorefractive (laser) surgery for the correction of refractive errors. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2006.

  • Reviewed by Natalie Heaton, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, June 2016.
    Expert reviewer Professor Simon Taylor, Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon.
    Next review due June 2019.

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