Laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) is a type of laser eye surgery that can be used to correct myopia, hyperopia, and astigmatism. It is relatively painless, and complications are rare. It is not a lengthy surgery.
Preparing for LASIK is usually a pretty simple process. The doctor will examine you and make sure you’re a good fit for this type of procedure. They’ll scan your eye with a nonintrusive device to get information on your eye that will be necessary for the surgery. You will be told not to wear contacts for a few weeks, and you may be prescribed some anti-anxiety medication for the day of the surgery.
The procedure itself takes less than 10 minutes per eye, although the laser does its work in less than a minute. LASIK doesn’t hurt, as the eye will be numbed.
Complete vision stabilization after LASIK may take a few months, although your vision should be relatively normal within a day or two. Your doctor will give you drops to put in your eyes, which should be used even if your eyes don’t seem dry.
Talk to your doctor about how to take care of your eyes as they heal. It may be recommended that you avoid some activities, such as high-impact sports and swimming, as you recover.
Basics of LASIK
Laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) is the single most commonly performed laser eye surgery to address nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia), and astigmatism.
The procedure involves the use of a very precise laser to reshape the cornea, helping light to more properly focus on your retina. This can help you see better, in many cases even improving your vision beyond the gold standard of 20/20. Talk to your doctor about what sort of improvement you can expect, as it varies from person to person.
Overall, LASIK is painless and a short outpatient procedure. You will usually see improvements in your vision almost immediately, and it will continue to improve and stabilize over the next few weeks and months.
As with any surgery, the potential for complications exists. In rare cases, a person may experience a slow decline in vision, usually due to abnormal wound healing, hormonal imbalances, or pregnancy. If you experience any decline in vision after your procedure, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
Prepping for Your Procedure
A few steps are necessary to prepare for your LASIK surgery.
Step 1: Get an assessment. Your potential surgeon will examine your eyes to make sure the procedure will be a good fit for you. They will check your pupil and cornea, and assess any relevant eye conditions you might have.
As a precaution, the tear film of your eye will be evaluated. This film gives the doctor an idea of your general risk of developing dry eye after your surgery. The evaluation can help the doctor determine how best to mitigate that risk.
Step 2: Have your eyes mapped. Your doctor will use special technology to map out your cornea. This gives the doctor the information that is necessary for your surgery. You will also be asked relevant medical questions during this portion of the exam.
Step 3: Schedule your surgery. If all seems well, your surgery will be scheduled.
Step 4: Stop wearing contacts. If you wear contacts, you will have to stop wearing them at least two weeks prior to your LASIK procedure. Instead, wear eyeglasses.
Step 5: Take any prescribed medications as advised. You may be prescribed medication to take before surgery to help you relax. For some people, medical procedures are uncomfortable and nerve-inducing experiences. Since LASIK requires that you remain still, medication that aids relaxation and eases anxiety can lower the risk of any complications and make the experience more comfortable.
How Long Does it Take?
LASIK is one of the fastest vision correction procedures available. On average, it takes less than 15 minutes per eye. The specific timeline will vary according to the needs of the individual patient and the type of LASIK chosen.
Each type of LASIK requires a slightly different amount of time for the procedure, but each version of LASIK is very fast. The typical patient spends less than 30 minutes in the operating room.
You will be at the office for a longer period of time due to paperwork and preparations for the surgery. Once the surgery is complete, you will spend some time in a recovery area, and your doctor will assess you before you go home.
The LASIK Procedure
Here’s what to expect when you arrive for your LASIK surgery.
Preparation: Numbing drops are put in your eyes. A special tool is used to keep your eye open. This helps to prevent you shifting or closing your eye, which could interfere with the procedure. You’ll be asked to remain still.
Once your eye is ready, a suction ring will be put on your eye. This shouldn’t hurt, but it may trigger a pressured feeling and cause your vision in that eye to dim.
The procedure: Your doctor will use a laser (or sometimes a small blade) to cut a small hinged flap in your cornea. This gives your surgeon access to your cornea, which needs to be reshaped. A computer is used to adjust the excimer laser to your particular prescription.
You will be told to look at a light, which helps to keep your eye in a fixed position. Meanwhile, a programmed laser will begin painlessly reshaping your cornea. As the laser pulses, tiny amounts of your cornea will be cut away.
As the surgeon uses the laser, you will likely hear a clicking sound. You may smell something that is similar to the smell of burning hair. This is normal.
The process works a bit like cutting a pair of prescription glasses. Both processes are designed to help light reach your eye in a way that will help you see more clearly.
Once your surgeon believes your cornea is properly shaped, the flap that was cut will be put back in place. The flap will usually heal on its own, not requiring any stitches or similar measures.
Recovering After Your Surgery
After your surgery, you won’t be able to drive. You’ll need to have a friend drive you home or make other arrangements.
Your eyes may feel itchy, burn, tear up, or otherwise be uncomfortable for a few hours, and you will probably have blurry vision for a day or two. You will likely see an immediate improvement in your vision despite some blurriness. This blurriness will clear in the coming weeks.
Your doctor may prescribe you some pain medication for the discomfort. You shouldn’t experience severe pain, so talk to your doctor immediately if you do.
You might need to wear a special eye cover at night to protect your eyes as they heal. This will prevent you from rubbing or scratching your eyes in your sleep.
It may take two to three months for your eyes to fully heal, and your vision to completely stabilize to its new level. Your doctor will want to see you one to two days after your surgery to make sure everything is healing as it should.
Your doctor will prescribe you lubricating eye drops, which you will put in your healing eyes three to four times a day (unless directed otherwise). This is to prevent them from getting dry. Continue to use the eye drops as directed even if your eyes don’t feel dry.
During the first few weeks of your healing process, you are probably going to feel a mild level of discomfort in your eyes. Patients often describe it as feeling like you have an eyelash in your eye.
You may experience some photophobia as you heal. This is when your eyes are more sensitive to light. It’s a good idea to carry sunglasses with you. Wear them outdoors, and you can even wear them inside if the lights are bright.
Talk to your doctor about how best to deal with any discomfort you may feel. Even when your eyes are healthy, it’s a bad practice to rub them. Rubbing them while you are healing from LASIK can result in damage to the eyes.
Going Easy on Your Eyes
Your doctor’s specific recommendations will vary depending on the exact nature of your surgery and your own lifestyle needs, but you will certainly be limited in some capacity as your eyes heal. Activities that potentially irritate your eyes or introduce germs need to be avoided.
Some activities you may be told to avoid include:
- Swimming. Water can carry a lot of bacteria and irritants, and these are bad for your eyes as they heal. Remember that chemicals that kill germs, like chlorine, can also be harsh on your skin and eyes. Just because a water source seems clean does not mean you should risk upsetting your healing process and ignore your doctor’s orders.
- Relaxing in hot tubs and whirlpools. Similar to the above, hot tubs and similar pools are notorious for how dirty they can be. Heat and moisture are often the perfect breeding ground for germs, and many people fail to properly clean their hot tubs.
- Playing contact sports. These sports put you at risk of getting mud, dirt, and other contaminants in your eye. You may also get hit in the eye while playing. It’s wise to avoid these sports during the healing process.
It can be tempting to hop back into your normal activities once your eyes feel good and your vision stabilizes, but wait the recommended period of time before you do. It’s not worth the risk of rushing back into things too soon. Give your eyes time to fully heal.
The Bottom Line
LASIK is a common procedure done to correct vision issues, and the risk of complications is low. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. get LASIK.
Talk to your surgeon about what you can specifically expect in terms of vision correction. Over 96 percent of people experience 20/20 vision after LASIK.
Make sure to follow your doctor’s pre-op and post-op instructions closely to ensure the best results.
The LASIK Procedure: A Brief Guide. (April 2019). All About Vision.
LASIK Eye Surgery. (November 2019). Mayo Clinic.
Do Dry Eye and LASIK Mix? (March 2004). Review of Optometry.
What Should I Expect Before, During, and After Surgery? (July 2018). U.S. Food & Drug Administration.