Laser vision can give you ‘super eyes’

An article by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor

Top sportsmen, pilots and military personnel are taking advantage of new laser techniques that can make their vision even better than nature can achieve.

They have been attending private clinics pioneering the laser treatment, which can give them eyesight almost two times more powerful than 20/20 vision, the benchmark for perfect sight.

A number of Premiership footballers have booked into clinics for the off-season in July and August. Golfers are among the keenest customers, since vision defects can be a prime cause of mishits. Tiger Woods is one of several players whose game improved after this type of surgery.

Although the Ministry of Defence bans military personnel from such treatments, a number of fighter pilots and special forces soldiers are understood to have undergone the procedure, which is relatively painless. The MoD is expected to lift the restriction after hearing it could save millions of pounds in pensioning off pilots early.

The treatment, known as wavefront technology, can also improve night vision, enabling those who have had it to see objects in the dusk or shadows.

The technique uses satellite mapping technology to build up a 3D image of the lens and cornea so that lasers can be targeted with greater accuracy.

“What makes this treatment different is that we can map out the tiny defects that occur naturally in all eyes and which we could not pinpoint before,” said Julian Stevens, consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields eye hospital in London. “We can then smooth out the defects using the laser. For the right patients it is a remarkably powerful technique.”

In America, Steve Schallhorn, a former F-14 fighter pilot instructor who retrained as an ophthalmic surgeon, has persuaded the military to offer the treatment to fighter pilots with deteriorating eyesight.

Normally, such pilots risk being pensioned off or assigned to lesser duties if they suffer even slight reductions in vision. The treatment has been so successful that some pilots are said to have even better sight than their untreated colleagues, giving them a potentially crucial advantage in combat.

Similar treatments have been offered to US Navy Seals, the equivalent of Britain’s Special Boat Squadron.

The emergence of the treatment – one of a number of types of laser-based eye surgery – coincides with a surge in the number of people seeking conventional laser eye surgery. A report from the British Society for Refractive Surgery shows that 300,000 Britons are now treated each year.

Those who have had laser treatments include Sir Richard Branson, Nicole Kidman, Courteney Cox, Mel Brown (aka Scary Spice) and Nasser Hussain, the England cricket captain. Sir Elton John has announced similar plans.

One patient of Stevens was Kate Lonnen, 24, an occupational therapist who had the operation along with her brothers Bradley, 30, and Alexander, 28. The three suffered from severe astigmatisms and other defects. “It was amazing to be able to see clearly for the first time in years,” said Lonnen. “It was like waking up.”

There are risks involved in having such surgery, especially at cheaper clinics where doctors may be less experienced and less scrupulous. Last month an investigation by Health Which? said many clinics exaggerated the success of their treatments and failed to warn of side- effects and complications.

However, such warnings are unlikely to reverse the trend to risk surgery rather than spend a lifetime wearing glasses. Lasik, the most popular of the older methods, involves cutting a flap from the surface of the cornea and reshaping the cornea underneath before replacing the flap. It costs up to £1,000 per eye.

Wavefront techniques are costlier but are still usually less than £1,800 per eye, comparing favourably with the lifetime cost of buying spectacles.

Sheraz Daya, director of the Corneoplastic Unit and Eye Bank at Queen Victoria hospital in East Grinstead, said he had treated a tank commander from Syria who flew over just for the operation. “We also get policemen and firemen as well as a lot of golfers – all people for whom good vision is critical for their work.”

Nick Webborn, a doctor who advises the British Paralympic Association on sports medicine, said the operation had changed his life. “I am in a wheelchair so spectacles and contact lenses are an even bigger nuisance.”

Keith Williams, medical director of Laser Vision Europe in Harley Street, London, has treated Mel Brown, Roger Taylor, the drummer for Queen, and the actor Tony Robinson. He said patients should beware that for a minority the operation does not work. “People react differently and we cannot always predict how,” he said.

(The Sunday Times. 9th March 2003)

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