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What is an Eye Transplant?

By M. DePietro
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By Azuza — On May 08, 2012

I find it interesting that although people refer to full eye transplants, the only thing that really gets transplanted is the cornea! I know there are disorders that affect the other parts of the eye though, so I guess in those cases there aren't any transplant options.

I wonder if doctors or scientists will eventually find a way to transplant the entire eyeball? I actually feel like that might be a little creepy, since a lot of people feel like the eyes are the "window to the soul." Imagine going into surgery and waking up with another persons eyes?

That being said, I bet a lot of people would probably still go for it if it could help them see.

By Monika — On May 07, 2012
@strawCake - I don't think I would like to work around dead bodies myself, but more power to your friend. Someone has to do it, or else we wouldn't be able to do a complete eye transplant on any patients (I don't think anyone would be willing to give up their corneas while still alive.)

Anyway, I was reading an article about the eye a few days ago, and I learned a few interesting things. I think the most interesting thing I read was that it's very difficult to treat bacterial eye infections. So I'm assuming cornea harvesting labs probably have pretty exacting standards for harvesting the cornea and allowing it to be transplanted.

By strawCake — On May 06, 2012

Fun fact: there are specific labs that harvest the corneas from cadavers for eye transplantation. I'm guessing this is because you have to take organs out when the patient is still hooked up to machines, but you can take the cornea out of a cadaver.

Anyway, I have a friend who works in one, and pretty much her whole job is harvesting corneas from cadavers (and tons and tons of paperwork.) While the job sounds kind of creepy to me, my friend really likes her job. Dead bodies don't freak her out, and she loves her coworkers. Also, she feels like her work is very rewarding. By harvesting the corneas, she's assisting a patient further down the line with their visions.

By John57 — On May 06, 2012

My cousin had a double keratoplasty done and it has made a big difference for him. He did get an infection in one of his eyes, but was able to clear it up with proper medication.

So far he has not had any problems with rejection. I was amazed this was done as an out patient, and how quickly he recovered. I remember reading that the eye is the fastest healing organ in our bodies.

Ever since my cousin went through this, I have registered as an eye donor. To see the hope it gave him really made me aware of how important something like this is.

When this affects someone close to you, and you see the firsthand results, it makes you very thankful. I think donating your eyes would be one of the greatest things you could do to pass something forward.

By bagley79 — On May 05, 2012

My dad had a cornea transplant in one eye because of cornea ulcers and continued scarring. Until then, I always thought a cornea transplant was considered a whole eye transplant - not just the cornea.

Something like that would be much more complicated than just replacing the cornea. It is amazing what they can do with these medical procedures.

My dad will eventually have to have a cornea transplant done in his other eye, as his condition has affected both eyes.

Knowing that he had such good results the first time is a comfort. Losing your eyesight can be pretty scary, and we are so thankful there were options and people willing to donate their eyes for the benefit of someone else.

By SarahSon — On May 04, 2012

@orangey03 - I had laser eye surgery done on both eyes, and was awake the whole time during this surgery. I was given something to numb the pain, but was fully aware of what they were doing.

My husband was even able to stay in the room and watch the procedure being done.

I had no idea they would also keep you awake like that for a cornea transplant. This would probably freak me out a little bit too. Whenever I am having any kind of medical procedure done, I don't want to know what is going on.

I just want to wake up and know everything has been taken care of. If I had failing vision though, and the only thing that would help me see better was a cornea transplant, I wouldn't let that stop me.

I imagine people who have successful eye transplants feel like they have a whole new lease on life.

By sunshined — On May 04, 2012

@jennythelib - I also found it interesting that a person waiting for a cornea transplant usually does not have to wait very long.

There must not be as many specific requirements that must be met in order to find a match for a successful eye transplant like that.

One of my friends was on the list for a liver transplant because of diabetes for a long time. Finding the right match can take months for something like this, and many times their health continues to go downhill.

Even though it is possible for rejection to happen with a cornea transplant, it doesn't sound like it happens as often, or is as serious when it does happen.

When you think about it, our bodies can live and function properly without our eyes, but that is not the case when it comes to something like your heart, liver or pancreas.

By lighth0se33 — On May 03, 2012

My friend had clouding of the cornea, and he had to have an eye transplant. His vision is so much better now than it was, and he know that he owes this to the donor of the cornea.

I asked him if it felt strange or wrong to be wearing a dead guy's corneas around, and he said that he is just so grateful to be able to see that it doesn't seem creepy at all. He knew that the donor intended for his organs to be used to help people, and he feels like he is giving the man's death meaning by having received his corneas.

I had never thought of it like that before. It is a wonderful thing to be saved by someone who no longer has any use for the parts that you desperately need.

By orangey03 — On May 02, 2012

I've heard that an eye transplant is possible only when the patient stays awake. I guess that may be because our eyes roll back in our heads when we sleep, so the doctor couldn't get to the part he needs to cut.

I just don't think I could handle being awake during eye surgery. I have seen videos of eye procedures, and though they always give the patient a strong sedative before the operation to calm their nerves and anxiety, I don't think there is medication out there strong enough for me to let someone cut on my eyeball.

I've seen the surgeons prop open the patients' eyelids with instruments, and that alone would freak me out. I know that cornea surgery would require a person to be still during the operation, but how could you not twitch in protest?

By dfoster85 — On May 02, 2012

@jennythelib - I think actually the reason there is not such a wait for keratoplasty has more to do with the supply than the demand. Remember that donor organs generally come from cadavers, who by definition have died. The cause of death, whether accident or illness, often damages vital organs, but the corneas are less susceptible. There are many cases where the cornea is actually the only organ that is usable from a would-be organ donor.

By jennythelib — On May 01, 2012

The article mentions that the wait for a cornea is usually shorter than for other organs. Why should that be? Do fewer people need a cornea eye transplant than other kinds? Is there just not as much demand?

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