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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 11:22 GMT
Eye laser surgery
Q&A graphic
Sir Elton John is the latest star to say he is planning to throw his spectacles away and undergo eye laser surgery.

BBC News Online examines the procedure and why it is proving popular with so many people.

What is eye laser surgery?

Traditionally, eye sight problems are corrected with spectacles or contact lenses.

In recent years, lasers have become a popular alternative. The laser is directed on the cornea, the outer, clear round structure that covers the colored part of the eye (iris) and the pupil.

For people with short-sightedness, for instance, the laser is set to reduce the thickness of the cornea. This enables the eye to bring images into focus properly.

The cost of eye laser surgery varies between clinics but generally starts at around 500 per eye.

Are there different types?

Yes. There are three main types of eye laser surgery.

The newest and most popular type of eye laser surgery is called LASIK. Under this procedure, a thin layer of the eye's cornea is sliced off to create a flap. This enables the laser to target the tissue underneath. The flap is simply replaced and grows back naturally. Vision is restored almost immediately.

Another option is EPIFLAP or LASEK surgery. This involves the partial removal of the epithelium or outer layer of cells on the eye to reveal the cornea. The cornea is then flattened or reshaped by a laser and the outer cells are pushed back and the eye heals within a few days.

PRK was the standard eye laser surgery for many years. It involved the complete removal of the epithelium or the outer layer of cells on the eye.

LASIK is usually used on patients with severe long sight or short sight. LASEK is used on patients with moderate or mild short sight.

Are these treatments safe?

All of these treatments have been approved for use in the UK and are therefore considered safe.

However, medical opinion is somewhat divided over some of the newer treatments.

This is largely because they have not been around very long and there are no long-running studies into the long-term effects of some of the treatments.

In addition, all surgery is not without its risks and eye surgery is no different. Doctors are expected to warn patients that the treatment does involve risk.

In some cases, patients have suffered major complications and required cornea transplants following laser treatment.

Can everyone have laser eye surgery?

No. Eye laser surgery is only suitable for certain people. It is usually only performed on healthy adults.

People who have just mild eyesight problems are not generally considered good candidates. Similarly, those whose eyesight has changed significantly in the past 12 months may also be refused because their eyesight is still getting worse.

Diabetes, pregnancy and arthritis and other similar conditions can also rule people out.

How popular is eye laser surgery?

Eye laser surgery is getting more popular every year not least because prices are coming down and the treatment is more widely available.

It is estimated that more than one million Americans are now having their eyes lasered in the US each year.

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