Corneal Transplant Surgery

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The cornea is the tissue on the very front of the eye. It is clear and covers the iris and pupil. It works with the lens to provide focusing power to the eye. If the cornea becomes opaque, swollen, or scarred, vision is compromised. Medication to control the damage to the cornea is usually the first line of treatment, but once it is clear that medication will not halt or alter the damage, a corneal transplant is considered. This surgical procedure involves the removal of the damaged tissue and replacement with a healthy, donated human cornea.

Because this procedure is a transplant of foreign tissue into the eye, rejection of the tissue by the immune system of the recipient is the greatest risk. However, drugs can be used to hold back the rejection reaction both before it occurs and even after the fact. Despite the availability of immunosuppressive drugs, the rejection rate for corneal transplants remains between five to 30 percent of the time.


* The costs of Cornea Transplant Surgery could vary significantly. It depends on surgeons fee, hospital, and location.

Nearly 40,000 Americans undergo a corneal transplant each year in the United States. The procedure can be done in less than an hour and is virtually painless.

Endothelial Keratoplasty (DLEK), is a medical term used to describe Corneal Transplant.








  1. What are the most common benefits of this surgery?
  2. How is the procedure performed?
  3. How long does the surgery take?
  4. Where will the procedure be performed?
  5. How much pain is there?
  6. What can I expect after the procedure?
  7. What is the recovery period like?
  8. What is the long-term outcome like for most people?
  9. Ideal Candidate:
  10. Other important information
  11. Risks and Limitations:


What are the most common benefits of cornea transplant surgery?

The transplanted tissue will enable the patient to regain much of the eyesight lost by the condition which damaged the patient's own cornea. The surgery can also eliminate symptoms due to the corneal condition. Because this procedure is performed only after medicines and other treatments have failed, it is the final method of providing relatively normal eyesight to someone having serious vision problems due to damage to their cornea.

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How is the corneal transplant surgery performed?

The transplant procedure involves removing the diseased or damaged tissue, then replacing it with the donor tissue. The entire operation is done under a surgical microscope. After taking measurements of the amount of tissue to be removed, the diseased corneal is cut and lifted away from the eye with a special round tool that works much like a cookie cutter called a trephine. Once the damaged tissue is removed, the donor cornea is cut to a matching size and placed on the patient's eye. It is held in place with very fine stitches using suture material that is about as thin as a hair.

If there is also a cataract present, this can be removed at the same time and replaced with an intraocular lens. For more information on this procedure, see Cataract Surgery.

At the conclusion of the corneal transplant procedure, a patch and a metal shield are placed over the eye to protect it.

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How long does the surgery take?

The operation usually lasts between one and two hours.

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Where will the procedure be performed?

The procedure is performed in an operating room of a hospital.

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How much pain is there?

The surgery is painless due to the administration of a local anesthetic at the beginning. Some patients may be given general anesthesia, particularly if their overall medical condition is in question. Most pain medicine should be able to control any residual pain present during the recovery period.

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What can I expect after the procedure?

If the procedure is performed under local anesthesia, you can go home after a short stay in the recovery area. You will need someone to drive you home. The use of general anesthesia will delay your leaving by about two additional hours to make sure the effects are wearing off.

After the procedure it is important to use the eye drops as prescribed, not rub or press on the eye, use over-the-counter pain medication, reduce exercise until healed, use the eye shields and patches as direct by your doctor, and not drive until given approval.

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What is the recovery period like?

The recovery period for corneal transplants is rather long. The stitches will remain in the eye for six to 12 months after the surgery. Eye drops will have to be used while the stitches are in place to assure proper healing.

An extremely important part of the recovery period is constant vigilance as to signs of rejection. Rejection occurs in five to 30 percent of all transplants and there is an increased risk if this operation is a second transplant after rejection of an initial one. If the rejection is noticed early, medication can be administered that will halt the reaction and save the transplant. Rejection occurs because the body's immune system recognizes the donor tissue as foreign and mounts a response against it. This damages the tissue such that it can no longer maintain the fluid balance, causing it to swell and lose clarity. Although the tissue will not fall out of the eye upon rejection, another transplant may be necessary to replace the tissue if too much damage occurs.

There are four signs of rejection that can be remembered by the mnemonic RSVP: Redness, Sensitivity to light, decreased Vision, or Pain. Any of these four symptoms, experienced after the initial healing period, should be reported to your ophthalmologist immediately.

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What is the long-term outcome like for most people?

Vision will return slowly after the operation, with final improvements seen as far out as a year after it is performed. If there are no other conditions to complicate the recovery, the chances for greatly improved vision as compared to before the surgery are very good. Often lenses are necessary to correct astigmatism (irregular curvature) of the transplanted tissue, but these problems are minor compared to the vision issues present with the damaged cornea. The final result statistics are highly dependent on the cause of the damage to the original cornea -- with rates around 90 to 95 percent success treating corneal diseases such as keratonconus, and much lower rates for other problems, in the range of five to 10 percent with lye burns.

However, even for persons suffering from chemical burns there is hope. A new technique has been developed that involves the transplantation of stem cells from a donor to grow a new surface over the removed damage cells. Then a standard transplant is done. This modification has greatly improved results for persons suffering from chemical damage.

The greatest threat to satisfactory long-term vision is rejection of the corneal transplant. Rejection is most common during the first year after the procedure but can occur at any time after the transplant, even years later. However, if a patient carefully watches for the signs of rejection, many reactions can be controlled with medication. In very rare cases, the disease that affected the original tissue will reoccur in the transplanted cornea.

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Ideal Candidate:

Corneal damage from many different sources can be treated with a transplant. Some examples of conditions that can result in a transplant are

  • corneal failure after other eye surgery
  • keratoconus -- a disease involving abnormal curvature of the cornea
  • inherited corneal diseases
  • scarring after infections -- particularly herpes
  • rejection of a first transplant
  • scarring after a physical injury.

Whatever the source of the damage, an ideal candidate has explored pharmaceutical treatments to these problems and they have been eliminated in their case. The vision from the diseased cornea should be so affected as to justify the risks inherent in a transplant procedure.

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Other important information

Research is currently being conducted into an oral vaccine that appears to significantly reduce the amount of rejection of corneal transplants. Although this work was done in mice, it is being attempted in humans and might be something you would want to discuss with your ophthalmologist, particularly if this transplant is following up an earlier rejection.

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Corneal Transplant Risks and Limitations:

The greatest risk with corneal transplants is rejection, although this can be treated with immunosuppressive medicine if caught in the early stages. Other risks that are much less prevalent but do occur are infection, bleeding, swelling or detachment of the retina, or glaucoma. All of these medical complications can be treated. Another type of problem that can happen with the transplant is an irregular curvature (astigmatism) that can slow the development of clear vision. This can be treated with Rigid contact lenses.

Corneal transplants are most successful if the damaged cornea is the sole vision problem in the eye. If other damage is present, particularly if due to a continuing condition, such as diabetes, vision can remain compromised even after the transplant. However, if the vision quality is improved, it may make sense to undergo the transplant despite the knowledge that the resulting vision will not be perfect.

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The information on this web site is intended only as an introduction to this procedure and should not be used to determine whether you will have the procedure performed nor as a guarantee of the result. The best method of determining your options is to consult qualified surgeons who are able to answer specific questions related to your situation.

*Disclaimer: Source: American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), nationally in 2010. Most surgeons offer convenient payments plans for this procedure. Cost does not include anesthesia, operating room facility, hospital stay, and other related expenses. Costs may vary depending the extensiveness of the procedure, location, and other factors. Costs are provided solely for research purposes. For specific estimates, please contact a qualified plastic surgeon. 

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