Published in the Calgary Herald
May 4, 2011
By Joel Schlesinger
Most people think of laser vision-correction surgery as a means to ditch their eyeglasses for good. Yet few realize that a lesser-known procedure may actually help save their eyesight.
Alberta Retina Consultants co-founder Dr. Brad Hinz often sees patients who initially want corrective laser surgery — commonly known as LASIK or PRK — but end up at his office after discovering they are at risk of a potentially serious condition called retinal detachment.
“Their refractive surgeons identify patients that may be at a higher risk for retinal detachment and send them to a retinal surgeon before proceeding with refractive surgery,” says Hinz, an ophthalmologist and vitreo-retinal surgeon.
Nearsighted people have a higher risk of retinal detachment, he adds. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye responsible for our vision, working a little like film in a camera reacting to light exposure to produce the images we see.
Occasionally, the retina can become detached from the tissue layer behind it, called the choroid, which supplies the retina with blood. If left untreated, the retina is starved of nutrients and its tissue dies, eventually causing blindness.
When caught early, Hinz says a retina is often successfully reattached and a patient’s eyesight is restored.
But laser retinopexy is a procedure to stop it from getting to that point in the first place. It’s a relatively quick and non-invasive procedure, covered by provincial health insurance, that fixes common retinal defects, such as thinning tissue or small tears.
“The best analogy is you have wallpaper on the wall that is a little ragged or worn and you grab your staple gun and put staples all around the area that is weak so it won’t tear the rest of the paper on the wall,” says Hinz, who performs many procedures at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton or at his clinic.
“With retinopexy, we use a laser on the surface of the retina to create a scar that adheres the retina to the choroid that lies beneath it like a carpet on the floor.”
The procedure, which takes between 10 to 40 minutes depending on the size of the affected area, can be quite uncomfortable.
“Usually, we freeze the surface of the eye with eyedrops,” he says. “If I had to do a large area, I could freeze it with a needle behind the eye like we do for intraocular surgery.”
Otherwise, the treatment involves few risks and little downtime.
“The next day, people are back to normal with maybe some temporary focusing issues,” Hinz says. “In rare cases, people can have prolonged near-focusing problems.”
But the risks and discomfort are far outweighed by the benefit — potentially saving the patient’s eyesight.
“Retinopexy doesn’t mean you’re decreasing the risk of retinal detachment to zero,” he says. “It means you’re taking someone from a higher risk of retinal detachment to a much lower risk.”