Keratoconus

What is Keratoconus?

From Greek: kerato- horn, cornea; and konos cone, Keratoconus is a degenerative disorder of the eye in which structural changes within the cornea cause it to thin and change to a more conical shape than its normal gradual curve.

It can cause substantial distortion of vision, with multiple images, streaking and sensitivity to light all often reported by the patient. It is typically diagnosed in the patient’s adolescent years and attains its most severe state between the ages of 20 and 40. If afflicting both eyes, the deterioration in vision can affect the patient’s ability to drive a car or read normal print.

What are symptoms?

People with early keratoconus typically notice a minor blurring of their vision and come to their clinician seeking corrective lenses for reading or driving. At early stages, the symptoms of keratoconus may be no different from those of any other refractive defect of the eye. As the disease progresses, vision deteriorates, sometimes rapidly. Visual acuity becomes impaired at all distances, and night vision is often poor. Some individuals have vision in one eye that is markedly worse than that in the other. The disease is often bilateral, though asymmetrical. Some develop photophobia (sensitivity to bright light), eye strain from squinting in order to read, or itching in the eye, but there is normally little or no sensation of pain. It may, in certain cases cause luminous objects appear like cylindrical pipes with the same luminous intensity at all points.

A representation of the multiple images made by extremely high contrast light sources as seen by a person with keratoconus. From left to right: A light source as seen by a healthy eye, uncorrected keratoconus vision, mostly corrected keratoconus vision with contact lenses.

The classic symptom of keratoconus is the perception of multiple “ghost” images, known as monocular polyopia. This effect is most clearly seen with a high contrast field, such as a point of light on a dark background. Instead of seeing just one point, a person with keratoconus sees many images of the point, spread out in a chaotic pattern. This pattern does not typically change from day to day, but over time, it often takes on new forms. Patients also commonly notice streaking and flaring distortion around light sources. Some even notice the images moving relative to one another in time with their heart beat.

The predominant optical aberration of the eye in keratoconus is the so-called coma. The visual distortion experienced by the patient comes from two sources, one being the irregular deformation of the surface of the cornea, and the other being scarring that occurs on its exposed highpoints. These factors act to form regions on the cornea that map an image to different locations on the retina. The effect can worsen in low light conditions, as the dark-adapted pupil dilates to expose more of the irregular surface of the cornea.

People with early keratoconus typically notice a minor blurring of their vision and come to their clinician seeking corrective lenses for reading or driving. At early stages, the symptoms of keratoconus may be no different from those of any other refractive defect of the eye. As the disease progresses, vision deteriorates, sometimes rapidly. Visual acuity becomes impaired at all distances, and night vision is often poor. Some individuals have vision in one eye that is markedly worse than that in the other. The disease is often bilateral, though asymmetrical. Some develop photophobia (sensitivity to bright light), eye strain from squinting in order to read, or itching in the eye, but there is normally little or no sensation of pain. It may, in certain cases cause luminous objects appear like cylindrical pipes with the same luminous intensity at all points.

A representation of the multiple images made by extremely high contrast light sources as seen by a person with keratoconus. From left to right: A light source as seen by a healthy eye, uncorrected keratoconus vision, mostly corrected keratoconus vision with contact lenses.

The classic symptom of keratoconus is the perception of multiple “ghost” images, known as monocular polyopia. This effect is most clearly seen with a high contrast field, such as a point of light on a dark background. Instead of seeing just one point, a person with keratoconus sees many images of the point, spread out in a chaotic pattern. This pattern does not typically change from day to day, but over time, it often takes on new forms. Patients also commonly notice streaking and flaring distortion around light sources. Some even notice the images moving relative to one another in time with their heart beat.

The predominant optical aberration of the eye in keratoconus is the so-called coma. The visual distortion experienced by the patient comes from two sources, one being the irregular deformation of the surface of the cornea, and the other being scarring that occurs on its exposed highpoints. These factors act to form regions on the cornea that map an image to different locations on the retina. The effect can worsen in low light conditions, as the dark-adapted pupil dilates to expose more of the irregular surface of the cornea.

Prior to any physical examination, the diagnosis of keratoconus frequently begins with an ophthalmologist’s or optometrist’s assessment of the patient’s medical history, particularly the chief complaint and other visual symptoms, the presence of any history of ocular disease or injury which might affect vision, and the presence of any family history of ocular disease. An eye chart, such as a standard Snellen chart of progressively smaller letters, is then used to determine the patient’s visual acuity. The eye examination may proceed to measurement of the localized curvature of the cornea with a manual keratometer, with detection of irregular astigmatism suggesting a possibility of keratoconus. Severe cases can exceed the instrument’s measuring ability. A further indication can be provided by retinoscopy, in which a light beam is focused on the patient’s retina and the reflection, or reflex, observed as the examiner tilts the light source back and forth. Keratoconus is amongst the ophthalmic conditions that exhibit a scissor reflex action of two bands moving toward and away from each other like the blades of a pair of scissors.

If keratoconus is suspected, the ophthalmologist or optometrist will search for other characteristic findings of the disease by means of slit lamp examination of the cornea. An advanced case is usually readily apparent to the examiner, and can provide for an unambiguous diagnosis prior to more specialized testing. Under close examination, a ring of yellow-brown to olive-green pigmentation known as a Fleischer ring can be observed in around half of keratoconic eyes.[ The Fleischer ring, caused by deposition of the iron oxide hemosiderin within the corneal epithelium, is subtle and may not be readily detectable in all cases, but becomes more evident when viewed under a cobalt blue filter. Similarly, around 50% of subjects exhibit Vogt’s striae, fine stress lines within the cornea caused by stretching and thinning. The striae temporarily disappear while slight pressure is applied to the eyeball. A highly pronounced cone can create a V-shaped indentation in the lower eyelid when the patient’s gaze is directed downwards, known as Munson’s sign. Other clinical signs of keratoconus will normally have presented themselves long before Munson’s sign becomes apparent, and so this finding, though a classic sign of the disease, tends not to be of primary diagnostic importance.

Corneal topogram of a keratoconic eye

A handheld keratoscope, sometimes known as “Placido’s disk”, can provide a simple noninvasive visualization of the surface of the cornea by projecting a series of concentric rings of light onto the cornea. A more definitive diagnosis can be obtained using corneal topography, in which an automated instrument projects the illuminated pattern onto the cornea and determines its topology from analysis of the digital image. The topographical map indicates any distortions or scarring in the cornea, with keratoconus revealed by a characteristic steepening of curvature which is usually below the centreline of the eye. The technique can record a snapshot of the degree and extent of the deformation as a benchmark for assessing its rate of progression. It is of particular value in detecting the disorder in its early stages when other signs have not yet presented.

Once keratoconus has been diagnosed, its degree may be classified by several metrics:

The steepness of greatest curvature from ‘mild’ (< 45 D), ‘advanced’ (up to 52 D) or ‘severe’ (> 52 D);

The morphology of the cone: ‘nipple’ (small: 5 mm and near-central), ‘oval’ (larger, below-center and often sagging), or ‘globus’ (more than 75% of cornea affected);

The corneal thickness from mild (> 506 μm) to advanced (< 446 μm).

Increasing use of corneal topography has led to a decline in use of these terms

What are the treatment options for keratoconus?

In most cases, corrective lenses fitted by a specialist are effective enough to allow the patient to continue to drive legally and likewise function normally. Further progression of the disease may require surgery, for which several options are available, including intrastromal corneal ring segments, cross-linking, mini asymmetric radial keratotomy and, in 25% of cases, corneal transplantation.

In early stages of keratoconus, spectacles or soft contact lenses can suffice to correct for the mild astigmatism. As the condition progresses, these may no longer provide the patient with a satisfactory degree of visual acuity, and most clinical practitioners will move to manage the condition with rigid contact lenses, known as rigid, gas-permeable, (RGP) lenses. RGP lenses provide a good level of visual correction, but do not arrest progression of the condition.

In keratoconic patients, rigid contact lenses improve vision by means of tear fluid filling the gap between the irregular corneal surface and the smooth regular inner surface of the lens, thereby creating the effect of a smoother cornea. Many specialized types of contact lenses have been developed for keratoconus, and affected people may seek out both doctors specialized in conditions of the cornea, and contact lens fitters who have experience managing patients with keratoconus. The irregular cone presents a challenge and the fitter will endeavor to produce a lens with the optimal contact, stability and steepness. Some trial-and-error fitting may prove necessary.

Traditionally, contact lenses for keratoconus have been the ‘hard’ or RGP variety, although manufacturers have also produced specialized ‘soft’ or hydrophilic lenses and, most recently, silicone hydrogel lenses. A soft lens has a tendency to conform to the conical shape of the cornea, thus diminishing its effect. To counter this, hybrid lenses have been developed which are hard in the canter and encompassed by a soft skirt. However, soft or earlier generation hybrid lenses did not prove effective for every patient. Early generation lenses like SoftPerm have been discontinued. The fourth generation of hybrid lens technology has improved significantly, giving more patients an option that combines the comfort of a soft lens with the visual acuity of an RGP lens. The new generation of technology fixes the issues prevalent in earlier generations and allows contact lenses to be fitted for the majority of patients.

Some patients also find good vision correction and comfort with a “piggyback” lens combination, in which RGP lenses are worn over soft lenses, both providing a degree of vision correction. One form of piggyback lens makes use of a soft lens with a countersunk central area to accept the rigid lens. Fitting a piggyback lens combination requires experience on the part of the lens fitter, and tolerance on the part of the keratoconic patient.

Scleral lenses are sometimes prescribed for cases of advanced or very irregular keratoconus; these lenses cover a greater proportion of the surface of the eye and hence can offer improved stability. The larger size of the lenses may make them unappealing or uncomfortable to some; however, their easier handling can find favor with patients with reduced dexterity, such as the elderly.

Surgical options

Cornea transplant

Corneal transplant for keratoconus, approximately one week after surgery – multiple light reflections indicate folds in the cornea which later resolved.

Between 10% and 25% of cases of keratoconus will progress to a point where vision correction is no longer possible, thinning of the cornea becomes excessive, or scarring as a result of contact lens wear causes problems of its own, and a corneal transplantation or penetrating keratoplasty becomes required. Keratoconus is the most common grounds for conducting a penetrating keratoplasty, generally accounting for around a quarter of such procedures. The corneal transplant surgeon trephines a lenticule of corneal tissue and then grafts the donor cornea to the existing eye tissue, usually using a combination of running and individual sutures. The cornea does not have a direct blood supply, so the donor tissue is not required to be blood type matched. Eye banks check the donor corneas for any disease or cellular irregularities.

The acute recovery period can take four to six weeks, and full postoperative vision stabilization often takes a year or more, but most transplants are very stable in the long term. The National Keratoconus Foundation reports that penetrating keratoplasty has the most successful outcome of all transplant procedures, and when performed for keratoconus in an otherwise healthy eye, its success rate can be 95% or greater. The sutures used usually dissolve over a period of three to five years, but individual sutures can be removed during the healing process if they are causing irritation to the patient.

In the USA, corneal transplants (also known as corneal grafts) for keratoconus are usually performed under sedation as outpatient surgery. In other countries, such as Australia and the UK, the operation is commonly performed with the patient undergoing a general anaesthetic. All cases require a careful follow-up with an eye doctor (ophthalmologist or optometrist) for a number of years. Frequently, vision is greatly improved after the surgery, but even if the actual visual acuity does not improve, because the cornea is a more normal shape after the healing is completed, patients can more easily be fitted with corrective lenses. Complications of corneal transplants are mostly related to vascularization of the corneal tissue and rejection of the donor cornea. Vision loss is very rare, though difficult-to-correct vision is possible. When rejection is severe, repeat transplants are often attempted, and are frequently successful. Keratoconus will not normally reoccur in the transplanted cornea; incidences of this have been observed, but are usually attributed to incomplete excision of the original cornea or inadequate screening of the donor tissue. The long-term outlook for corneal transplants performed for keratoconus is usually favorable once the initial healing period is completed and a few years have elapsed without problems.

Corneal ring segment inserts

Intrastromal corneal ring segments

A recent surgical alternative to corneal transplant is the insertion of intrastromal corneal ring segments. A small incision is made in the periphery of the cornea and two thin arcs of polymethyl methacrylate are slid between the layers of the stroma on either side of the pupil before the incision is closed. The segments push out against the curvature of the cornea, flattening the peak of the cone and returning it to a more natural shape. The procedure, carried out on an outpatient basis under local anaesthesia, offers the benefit of being reversible and even potentially exchangeable as it involves no removal of eye tissue.

The principal intrastromal ring available is known by the trade name Intacs. Internationally, Ferrara rings are also available. Intacs are a patented technology and are placed outside the optical zone, whereas the smaller prismatic Ferrara rings are placed just inside the 5 mm optical zone. Intacs are the only corneal implants to have gone through the FDA Phase I, II and III clinical trials and were first approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States in 1999 for myopia; this was extended to the treatment of keratoconus in July 2004.

A pair of Intacs after insertion into the cornea

Clinical studies on the effectiveness of intrastromal rings on keratoconus are in their early stages, and results have so far been generally encouraging, though they have yet to enter into wide acceptance with the refractive surgery community. In common with penetrating keratoplasty, the requirement for some vision correction in the form of spectacles or hydrophilic contact lenses may remain subsequent to the operation. Potential complications of intrastromal rings include accidental penetration through to the anterior chamber when forming the channel, postoperative infection of the cornea, and migration or extrusion of the segments. The rings offer a good chance of vision improvement even in otherwise hard-to-manage eyes, but results are not guaranteed and in a few cases may worsen.

Cross-linking

Removed corneal epithelium during CCR operation on an eye with post-LASIK complication, from Kymionis et al., 2009

Corneal collagen crosslinking with riboflavin, also known as CXL, CCR, CCL and KXL, involves a one-time application of riboflavin solution to the eye that is activated by illumination with UV-A light for approximately 30 minutes. The riboflavin causes new bonds to form across adjacent collagen strands in the stromal layer of the cornea, which recovers and preserves some of the cornea’s mechanical strength. The corneal epithelial layer is generally removed to increase penetration of the riboflavin into the stroma.

In some cases, collagen cross-linking may also be combined with other treatments to improve corneal asymmetry or optical refraction. Successful treatment methods include corneal ring segment inserts (Intacs or Ferrara rings), Topography Guided Laser, or Keraflex. Corrective lenses are normally required after these treatments, but with smaller, more normalized prescriptions. Increased corneal symmetry allows for more comfortable contact lens wear, often of daily disposable lenses. These newer methods may have an important role in limiting deterioration of vision, increasing unaided and uncorrected vision, and reducing the case for corneal transplantation.

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