A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of one’s eye, as explained by the Mayo Clinic. Such clouding occurs when the optic lens that focuses light as it passes through the eye experiences a breakdown of tissue that clumps together.
These clumps blur or fog one’s sight which then scatters or, sometimes, completely blocks the light that would otherwise pass through it. Those with cataracts note difficulty reading, driving and recognizing faces.
Early cataracts symptoms may include sensitivity to light, dim blurry vision or colors appearing slightly different. During cataract surgery, the clouded lens will be removed and replaced with a clear, plastic intraocular lens. Without insurance in the United States, cataract surgery costs approximately $3,000-$6,000 per eye.
While such vision impairment can be caused by medical conditions like diabetes, long-term use of certain medications and past eye surgeries, cataracts are also a normal part of aging. In fact, half of Americans aged 80 or older have cataracts. As a preventative measure, people aged 40 to 64 should schedule a regular eye exam every two years while people 64 and older are advised to go every year.
Not everyone develops cataracts in old age, however.
Michael*, for instance, was 37 when he first started noticing signs of cataracts, which included dry eyes, light sensitivity, halos, starbursts and loss of perceptible contrast.
Troubled by these conditions, Michael suspected that perhaps the LASIK eye surgery he had 17 years prior, when he was 20 years old, had something to do with his vision problems. When Michael sought medical advice, the doctor who diagnosed him with cataracts denied the notion that LASIK might have played a role in his development of cataracts. This may have stemmed from the fact the increased risk of early cataracts from LASIK surgery is still a taboo topic for many eye doctors, as Michael purports.
While not all medical professionals are ready to pin the blame on LASIK for causing premature cataracts, science corroborates the link between the eye surgery and the optic condition. A 2016 study found that LASIK is correlated with earlier cataract extraction. “Patients with a history of microkeratome-assisted LASIK under-went cataract surgery a decade sooner than patients with similar demographics and ocular characteristics,” note the researchers.
Studies conducted in Europe (2015) and Japan (2015) arrived at the same conclusion: young people who undergo LASIK are more likely to develop cataracts younger than those who didn’t have the surgery. Their risk of worse post-operative corrected-distance visual acuity (CDVA) was also higher.
For Michael, this diagnosis “increases the uncertainty for the future.” He says, “I already have bad vision from LASIK surgery, and cataracts will lead to even worse vision. Knowing that I will have cataract surgery at a younger age while still active and not retired is something that worries me a lot.”
Dr. Cynthia Mackay, MD is a board-certified ophthalmologist based in New York. She tells MedTruth that there isn’t scientific reasoning yet as to why people who get LASIK suffer from cataracts at such an early age. The fact of the matter is that LASIK patients get cataracts 15 years earlier than people who haven’t had LASIK.
Although she isn’t entirely sure why this is happening, Mackay says it may be because the eye is pressed flat during the procedure. “That’s why the rate of retinal detachment is ten times greater [in those who undergo LASIK],” she explains.
Tampa resident Paula Cofer didn’t experience retinal detachment due to LASIK but was stunned when she was diagnosed with early cataracts within two years of undergoing LASIK. She had LASIK 19 years ago at the age of 41.
Initially, Paula didn’t bring up the link between LASIK and her cataracts during medical appointments because she was simply too intimidated by the ophthalmologists. Her symptoms, however, included a laundry list of complications.
Paula explains to MedTruth that she struggled with, “induced astigmatism, irregular astigmatism (not correctable with glasses), severe night vision disturbances, severe dry eyes, inflammation known as diffuse lamellar keratitis (DLK) and floaters.” She reflects, “I needed glasses on day one after LASIK. My vision has not been stable ever since.” Such an experience has given Paula strong distrust toward medical doctors.
“My quality of life was severely impacted by LASIK,” she says. “LASIK affected my career and relationships. I suffered depression and anxiety and thoughts of suicide.”
The impact of LASIK on the brain is undeniable. In fact, there have been several stories and incidents that link LASIK to depression and suicide. Jessica Starr, a Detroit meteorologist died by suicide after her LASIK surgery in 2018 which brought the story to the public.
For a surgery opted for by approximately 700,000 Americans per year, the consistently reported complications pose immense reason for concern, especially among patients who have already had the procedure.
It was this line of thought that prompted Paula to create the LASIK Complications Support Group on Facebook, which now has 7,056 members. “When injured patients find the group where virtually everyone has been through something simila — where everyone understands — they feel validated and understood,” Paula reflects. “Finally, they can vent openly and no one judges or denies their experiences.”
Paula’s hope for everyone in the group is that they get better, but she says even if total healing isn’t possible, providing others an online space to cultivate coping strategies can help them move on with their lives.
The connection between LASIK surgery and cataracts still hasn’t been addressed in mainstream media due to a lack of scientific evidence and dismissal of the link by medical professionals; However, the link is palpable for patients who have struggled emotionally with their vision loss and other associated complications.
For patients Paula and Michael, whose vision will never be the same, the awareness they bring to the cause reminds us that believing patients is more important than ever. It’s because of their testimony and grassroots efforts like those in the LASIK Complications Support Group that we can recognize such issues post-procedure as a collectively-shared issue that requires adequate investigation and proper patient-warnings.
By S. Nicole Lane
S. Nicole Lane is a freelance journalist based in the southside of Chicago where she covers women’s health, the LGBTQ voice, arts, and entertainment. Her byline can be found in Playboy, Rewire News, i-D, Broadly and various other corners of the internet. She is also a visual artist who works with small-scale sculptures.