A Bausch and Lomb study found that a majority of Americans polled would rather go deaf, than blind -- and logically so. There are so many things that can’t be done without sight; so many daily basics that become huge challenges, that just the thought of losing one’s eyesight can be terrifying. Even issues that affect eyesight can take a devastating toll on one’s life and lead to difficulty in many simple things that were once taken for granted.
Keratoconus is such a disease of the eye, one which causes blurred vision, light sensitivity, and even a rupturing of the cornea called corneal hydrops. In a normal eye, the cornea is the clear, rounded front part of an eye. It can be thought of like a camera lens, as the parabolic shape focuses light back onto the retina. The retina is where light is converted into nerve signals that the brain then interprets as images.
In a regular eye, the round shape of the cornea allows light to pass through evenly onto the retina. Keratoconus literally means, “coning of the cornea,” but if it simply turned the retina into a cone, the disease would not be nearly as harmful. In an eye with Keratoconus, the cornea thins and the pressure within the eye causes it to bulge out in an irregular cone shape. This irregularity causes light to be distorted and diffused, before reaching the cornea, and leads to double vision, ghosting and eyestrain.
There is still debate over what exactly causes Keratoconus, although there does seem to be evidence of genetic factors, but it doesn’t always run in families. Since it is caused by a thinning of the cornea, too much eye rubbing exacerbates Keratoconus (a problem, since it also causes itching), and may even be one of the causes of the disease. Some also believe that improperly-fitted contact lenses can increase one’s likelihood of developing the condition, but there is no irrefutable proof of such. Experts estimate that between 1 in 500, to 1 in 2,000 people have Keratoconus.
Keratoconus can affect one, or both eyes, and symptoms can be very mild, where there is barely any difference in one’s vision, to severe, where driving, reading, writing and other tasks can no longer be performed. Treatment of Keratoconus is a developing science, with huge strides being made in recent years.
For many cases, soft contact lenses can solve many symptoms, are easy to use, mobile, and require very little maintenance. Intacs are plastic inserts placed under the eye’s surface that help reshape the cornea. They are generally used in more advanced cases, when contacts are no longer effective. Despite being placed under the eye, the Intac procedure is not painful and only takes about ten minutes.
Cornea collagen cross-linking or CXL stops bulging by strengthening corneal tissue. The most famous successful case was with bobsledder Steve Holcomb, who overcame Keratoconus to win the Olympic gold in bobsledding in 2010. The specific procedure he underwent is now referred to as the Holcomb C3-R, and is available to any Keratoconus patient. Keratoconus surgery and corneal transplants are the final options, for extreme cases, but huge advances in the other treatment options have allowed most patients to avoid these more drastic procedures.