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LASIK Surgery: Safer Than Contacts?

Analysis Shows Higher Long-Term Risk of Infections for Contact Lens Wearers
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 10, 2006 -- The widely held belief that wearing contact lenses is safer than having laser surgery for vision correction is being challenged.

A leading eye doctor says contact lens users are actually more likely to develop complications that lead to vision loss over time than patients who have LASIK surgery.

Based on their review of several large studies, ophthalmologist William Mathers, MD, and colleagues concluded that daily contact lens wearers have about a one in 100 chance of developing a serious lens-related eye infection over 30 years of use, and a one in 2,000 chance of suffering significant vision loss as a result.

The researchers calculated the risk of significant vision loss due to LASIK surgery to be closer to one in 10,000 cases. They reported their findings in a letter published this month in the journal Archives of Ophthalmology.

"One shouldn't just assume that contacts are safer," Mathers tells WebMD. "This may have been true at one time, but for the average person this is certainly not the case anymore."

Direct Comparisons Difficult

Between 20 and 25 million people in the U.S. wear contact lenses; about a million Americans have laser surgery to correct vision problems each year.

Mathers is an eye surgeon who specializes in treating vision-threatening eye infections at the Oregon Health & Science University's Casey Eye Institute in Portland.

"Several times a year, I have patients who lose eyes from complications because they've been wearing contacts and they've gotten an infection," he says. "By this I mean their eye has to be physically removed from their bodies."

Direct comparisons of the risks vs. benefits of contacts and laser surgery have been difficult because surgical complications are immediate and the risks associated with contact lenses accumulate over many years.

The risks associated with long-term use of contact lenses are greater when lenses are used improperly, but they remain even when wearers do everything right, Mathers says.

"Almost everyone who wears contact lenses violates some principle of proper use at some point," he says. "Either they don't wash their hands before putting them in or they use tap water [to store the lenses]. But infections can occur even when this doesn't happen."

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