What Is Keratoconus? Everything You Need to Know
Many diseases affect the eye beyond blurry or distorted vision and difficulty focusing on objects up close or at a distance. Beyond these, other commonly known vision problems don’t just affect your ability to see clearly — but threaten your ability to see at all, especially without early detection and treatment.
Keratoconus is one of these lesser-known eye diseases that, when left untreated, can cause gradually declining vision. Like many vision problems, it is a progressive condition that can cause further blurriness and distortion.
But what exactly is this progressive eye disease, and what are the signs and symptoms to watch out for to seek early treatment?
What is keratoconus?
Don’t let its strange or baffling name intimidate you — keratoconus is an eye condition that affects the cornea, located at the front of the eye and integral to seeing. With keratoconus, the cornea thins and bows outwards, then gradually bulges into a cone-like shape that bends light as it enters the eye, which then distorts normal vision.
However, since this distortion is irregular — unlike in other eye conditions — the resulting blurred or distorted vision is much harder to correct. Some cases are impossible to entirely correct with eyeglasses. Because of this, patients with keratoconus respond more and are likely to experience an improved quality of life with corrective treatments other than lenses.
What causes keratoconus and who gets it?
The exact causes of keratoconus are currently unknown — eye doctors don’t know for sure how patients develop the condition, but there are indications that this progressive disease can be hereditary. There are also potential links to conditions like Down Syndrome, as well as habits like chronic eye rubbing. But are you likely to develop keratoconus?
What doctors know about keratoconus, though, is that it is progressive. The first symptoms often appear in the late teen years, although it has been detected among patients in their 20s and late 30’s. Because symptoms and vision problems can progress, keratoconus must be detected and treated as early as possible.
The good news is, keratoconus is not as common as other eye diseases — roughly 1 in 1000 people experience it in varying degrees, so experiencing blurred vision may still point to other vision problems. Unfortunately, this also means keratoconus is more challenging to treat than near and far-sightedness because it doesn’t respond to glasses and contacts; refractive surgery is often not recommended.
What are the signs and symptoms of keratoconus?
How easy — or difficult — is keratoconus to detect? This progressive eye disease mirrors many other conditions by presenting as blurred or distorted vision, so much that it is barely noticeable. For some people, this doesn’t ring the alarms that it should. Keratoconus is only detected once a patient undergoes tests, which require seeing their eye doctor.
What makes keratoconus different from other eye diseases — and how can you protect yourself against its progression to preserve your vision? This starts with knowing these common symptoms, such as:
- Blurred and distorted vision, which may be noticeable in the early stages
- Having to change glasses or contact lenses frequently due to irregular shifts in the degree of astigmatism, the curvature of the eye, or the thickness of the cornea
- Sudden clouding of vision, known as acute hydrops that takes weeks or months to clear up and caused by infusion of a liquid into the stretched cornea
- Increased vision impairment caused by superficial scars forming at the apex of the corneal bulge.
These common signs and symptoms gradually develop, which makes keratoconus harder to detect in the early stages. This is why it’s also crucial to get your eyes regularly checked and pay attention to vision problems, no matter how minor.
Does keratoconus cause blindness?
For most people, the worst-case scenario of the onset of vision problems is the risk of blindness. It’s why vision healthcare is essential, along with early detection and treatment of declining vision quality. For keratoconus patients, blindness is a common fear. This progressive eye disease distorts normal vision and doesn’t respond to typical corrective treatments.
Fortunately, keratoconus does not cause blindness. The best way to manage the progression of blurred vision is to stay on top of vision health and find treatment options that work for you to slow and mitigate the condition’s changing nature.
As corrective lenses and other standard treatments for refractive errors cannot effectively treat keratoconus, patients must work with their eye doctor to find treatment options that improve their vision and quality of life.
Moderate keratoconus tends to respond to rigid gas permeable contact lenses, which puts up a smooth tear layer in front of the cornea and clears the distortion to your vision. These lenses work because they are much more rigid than typical contact lenses and allows tears to form a “liquid lens” that helps smooth out the cornea’s irregularities.
When keratoconus progresses to a severe stage, the degree of thinning and scarring of the cornea may render specialized contact lenses ineffective in restoring clear vision. Your eye doctor may recommend Laser Light Transepithelial Crosslinking to strengthen the cornea and improve its shape. This treatment also helps prevent the need for a future corneal transplant, making it the ideal option for those with keratoconus. Patients who have undergone Laser Light Transepithelial Crosslinking for keratoconus enjoyed an excellent prognosis and positive results that drastically improve their quality of life.