Laser eye surgery is available on the NHS for eye conditions that, without treatment, can lead to loss of vision. This includes problems such as diabetic retinopathy, wet macular degeneration and some specific diseases of the cornea, e.g. recurrent corneal erosions.
Laser surgery to correct refractive errors - e.g. long- or short-sightedness or astigmatism - is only available on a private basis. This is because other successful treatments, such as wearing glasses or contact lenses, are available. Some NHS trusts run laser eye surgery clinics, but they usually charge a fee.
Although there are no official figures, it is believed that more than 15,000 people a year in the UK have laser refractive eye surgery to correct problems such as long and shortsightedness. Of these people, some 85% no longer need to wear contact lenses or glasses most of the time.
If you decide to have laser eye surgery to correct a refractive error, you should speak to your optician first. They will be able to advise you about the procedure and recommend clinics in your area. The Royal College of Ophthalmologists say that only registered surgeons with specialist training should carry out laser surgery.
It is important that you do your homework and only seek this treatment from an experienced specialist. Not everyone is a suitable candidate for laser refractive eye surgery. Most clinics will require you to be over 21, in good general health, have healthy eyes, and have had a stable prescription for the past two or three years. There are some contra-indications to treatment, such as pregnancy, glaucoma and unstable diabetes.
In laser eye surgery for refractive errors, a laser is used to alter the shape of the cornea, which changes the way the eye focuses light, and improves vision. The procedure is most successful in people with short-sightedness and may even correct vision completely. Laser surgery for diabetic retinopathy and wet macular degeneration involves a different technique, known as photocoagulation.
The laser targets blood vessels on the outer part of the retina, to stop them leaking fluid that damages the retina and sight.
Most reputable companies will offer you a free consultation to assess whether you are a suitable candidate for laser refractive eye surgery. This initial consultation should include an in-depth eye examination and many additional tests not carried out at a standard sight test.
You should also be informed about what after-care you can expect - including any eye drops that you will need to apply yourself - and when you will receive your follow-up appointments to assess the outcome of the surgery.
You should ask for a full outline of your treatment plan and costs in advance before you commit to the procedure, and you may find that the company you choose has a payment scheme in place to enable you to spread the costs of your surgery.