Wouldn’t it be amazing if your nearsighted eyes could suddenly see things clearly that weren’t directly under your nose? We know what you’re thinking: That’s what glasses and contacts are for (duh). But we’re talking about eliminating those—sort of—with ortho-k lenses, special contacts that you sleep in to reshape your eyes so that you don’t need glasses during the day.
It might not sound like it, but the process is painless and much less risky than an invasive laser surgery, but you’ll need to consider several pros and cons when debating whether ortho-k lenses are right for you. If you’re in this boat (or if you’re still scratching your head over exactly what ortho-k lenses are), you’re not alone. We’ll get into more details with the help of ophthalmologist Douglas Lazzaro, M.D. of NYU Langone Health.
What exactly are ortho-k lenses?
We know that nearsightedness is caused by rounded corneas. But sleeping in ortho-k lenses—rigid, gas-permeable contacts—gradually reshapes the corneas overnight so that you don’t need to use lenses or glasses to see during the day. The entire process is known as orthokeratology. According to Dr. Lazzaro: “It’s kind of like using retainers to straighten your teeth. A series of lenses will be required over time to get the desired effect, and it could take five or even 30 different lenses to maintain that flatness.”
Do they really work?
Ortho-k lenses do not permanently change the eye shape. “When you stop using them,”Dr. Lazzaro warns, “the nearsightedness that was being helped comes back quickly.”
The treatment also depends on your eye shape and how much correction you need. Plus, just like your middle school retainer, you’ll likely need to head in for adjustments to better fit your corneas as they flatten. So if you’re looking for a one-time fix, these might not be the best option, as ortho-k requires some real maintenance and patients who are up for wearing them every night.
Still, about 67 percent of patients polled in an FDA study said their vision improved while using ortho-k contacts. On the flip side, about a third of the patients in that same study stopped treatment because they found them to be ineffective.
What are the risks of ortho-k lenses?
Unlike laser surgery—which can be a permanent vision fix—ortho-k lenses come with a shorter, less scary list of potential side effects. They’re “pretty safe,” according to Dr. Lazzaro, but nothing is foolproof or risk-free. The most common issue people run into is a pesky infection from unwashed hands or debris while handling the lenses. Plus, as Dr. Lazzaro points out, “When you put any type of lens on the eye, you deprive it of oxygen and create an environment where bacteria could grow.” Wash those hands, people.
So how do I get them?
If this sounds like you and you’d like to give them a shot, Dr. Lazzaro told us that you’ll need to be fitted by an optometrist who specializes in ortho-k to get the desired amount of corneal flattening.
But be aware: These lenses can be much more expensive than standard contacts and typically run north of $1,000 per pair—a price you’ll have to pay again and again as your corneas change shape.