Laser vision correction procedures, like LASIK, are all about high performance – achieving excellent vision that, unlike eyeglasses or contact lenses, is more precise, always in place and that stands up to extreme conditions. Many people in demanding professions – pilots and emergency first responders come to mind – have been quick to recognize and take advantage of the benefits of laser vision correction. So have athletes, who rely on their vision to play at top levels, and who often have to work in difficult environments – in dirt, sand, wind and rain, going quickly from sunlight to artificial light, and dealing with physical conditions, such as exertion and collisions, that make eyeglasses and contacts hard – and even dangerous – to use.
Recent advances in technology have made laser vision correction even better for athletes. But there are issues to think about, including which kind of laser vision correction is best for each particular athlete and/or sport. Dr. Derek N. Cunningham, O.D., the director of research and optometry here at Dell Laser Consultants, explored these questions in an extensive article that was published recently in The Review of Optometry.
According to Dr. Cunningham, there are many reasons why athletes like laser vision correction:
- Better vision after LASIK surgery helps reaction time and depth perception
- LASIK allows you to see contrast better under different kinds of light than glasses or contacts
- LASIK stands up to extreme environments. Sweat, helmets and other gear can make it impossible to wear glasses. And contact lenses aren’t completely reliable in extreme conditions.
LASIK is the most popular laser vision correction procedure available today because it is a safe and effective option that delivers excellent vision with a fast recovery time in a two-step process. This includes creating a flap in the cornea – today most surgeons use an advanced, very precise laser instrument called a “femtosecond laser” – to expose the inner cornea where the vision correction is performed. Once the flap is replaced, the procedure is over and, typically, patients experience an immediate improvement in their vision quality. That improvement increases during the healing process. But other approaches are available that don’t involve a flap – instead, the surgeon uses a laser to reshape the outer surface of the cornea. This is known as “surface ablation,” – specific techniques include Advanced Surface Ablation (ASA) and Photorefractive Keratectomy (PRK) . These offer excellent results as well, but there is a longer recovery period,. Which technique is better? It depends on the patient. In making the choice, athletes and their LASIK surgeons need to think carefully about:
- Does it matter to you to see contrast well? It does to many athletes, who have to sight small objects (like balls) against changing backgrounds (like the sky or the grandstand). Clinical studies show femtosecond-laser flaps allow better contrast detection.
- How much time can you take to recover? If you have a long off-season, surface ablation can be a good option. But recovery is much faster when we cut a flap with the femtosecond laser. That can be a better option for athletes who need to be back in action quickly.
- What’s the risk of eye injury in your sport, and what kind of injury are we talking about? After 15 years and 16 million procedures, we know LASIK is an extremely safe and stable vision correction option for many types of sports – including contact sports such as football and boxing. But when there is a high probability of getting jabbed in the eye with a finger – such as in basketball, wrestling, and mixed martial arts – surface ablation may be the better option.
- Are you ready to play your position and be part of the treatment team after surgery? Most patients experience some side effects after laser vision correction – in particular, dry eye. For athletes as for all patients, it usually resolves a few weeks. But it can be more bothersome for athletes than for non-athletes. We treat it aggressively, using a combination of oral antibiotics, medicated eye drops, artificial tears, Omega-3 fatty acid supplements and nutritional support, both before and after surgery. Athletes should understand the treatment regimen – and the importance of sticking to it.
- What do you expect from laser vision correction? Knowing what the surgery will do for you, and what it won’t do, will help you have a good experience. Talk to your surgeon, make sure he or she understands your needs as an athlete, and make sure you understand how your vision will change, and how that might affect your performance. Involve your coaches and trainers, so that you have as much information as possible about your specific needs.
Whatever your sport – at whatever level you play – an in-depth conversation with your surgeon can help you make the right decisions and decide what kind of laser vision correction will work best for you!