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Although technology continually evolves, an eye transplant currently does not include transplanting the entire eyeball to treat vision loss. It’s actually the cornea which is usually transplanted. In order to do an entire eye transplant, the optic nerve would have to be cut to remove the eyeball and then reattached.
Even though the entire eyeball is not replaced, a cornea transplant may sometimes be referred to as an eye transplant. The cornea may be transplanted to help restore sight in people with certain eye conditions. For instance, if a person has clouding of the cornea, swelling, cornea ulcers or scarring, which interferes with vision, a transplant may be done.
An eye transplant involving replacing the cornea is a relatively common procedure. It is often a much easier process than other types of transplants and is sometimes performed on an outpatient basis. Unlike other transplanted organs, the wait for corneas is often not too long. Corneas are donated after a donor has died, but most people have corneas which are eligible for donation.
Prior to the transplant, a complete eye exam is performed and any conditions, such as an eye infection, need to be treated before surgery. The doctor will also take measurements of the eye so a cornea can be found which matches the size a patient needs. Usually the procedure is performed without putting the patient under general anesthesia. The eye is numbed and a sedative may be given. The part of the cornea which is diseased or damaged is removed and the donor cornea is then stitched in place.
Surgery is relatively quick and recovery time varies, but most people will have some pain and swelling after the procedure. Oral medications and eye drops to prevent infection and treat pain are usually given. A metal eye shield is usually placed over the eye to apply pressure to help reduce swelling. It also helps protect the eye while recovery takes places.
Most patients who have corneal transplants don’t have severe complications, but they can occur. Rejection of the cornea is a possibility, along with infection. Medication may be given to treat rejection if it occurs. Occasionally increased pressure in the eye can also occur after surgery. Additional procedures to adjust the cornea may be needed as the eye heals.
The amount of vision which is restored through a transplant varies, and partially depends on the condition which lead to the cornea transplant. Even if vision is not completely restored, most transplants do result in some improvement in vision.