The contact lenses that could restore 20/20 vision

You wear lenses while you sleep, then wake up with perfect vision. Short-sighted Jimmy Lee Shreeve tried it – and couldn’t believe his eye.

I knew I was becoming short-sighted when I couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard at school. My parents duly took me for an eye test and, at 13, I was given a pair of specs. My heart sank. I didn’t want to be a Clark Kent or a geek. So I refused to wear them for school or anywhere out of the house. As a result, my work suffered. I became a bit of a rebel to compensate and left school without any qualifications. All for the sake of vanity.

In my early twenties I invested in a pair of contact lenses, which solved the vanity issue (and meant I was now able to catch the right buses). But they were fiddly to put in and take out – not to mention having to be careful not to rub my eyes. I also managed to wreck a couple of pairs after having had too many shots of Jack Daniels (inebriation and contacts don’t mix).

Despite my myopic misadventures, I was never tempted by laser surgery. Call me a wimp, but I didn’t fancy the idea of having my eyes zapped by a ray gun. And I was aware that the surgery is non-reversible and the long-term effects aren’t yet properly known. Since trashing my last pair of contact lenses (yes, it was Jack Daniels’ fault again), I’d pretty much resigned myself to wearing specs. But recently I heard about a new treatment promising the restoration of 20/20 vision without glasses or surgery. It’s called Ortho-K, or Orthokeratology, and involves wearing special contact lenses while you sleep, to correct the curvature of the eye. When you wake up the next morning and take out the lenses, you have perfect vision throughout the day.

I couldn’t believe it. This sounded like the philosophers’ stone for the short-sighted – perfect vision without glasses. But was it too good to be true? There was only one way to find out: try it for myself and see. So I looked for the nearest Ortho-K specialists – an opticians called DH Thomas in Cambridge – and booked an appointment. When I arrived, David Thomas, an optician with more than 30 years of experience and an Ortho-K user himself, ran me through the basics of the treatment. “Ortho-K is similar to an orthodontist using a brace to straighten teeth,” he explained. “We take extremely accurate and detailed measurements of your eyes. We then have a pair of hard contact lenses made up with a curvature calculated to squeeze each eye gently in the right places to correct a range of short-sighted and astigmatic prescriptions.”

Thomas went on to explain that short-sighted people’s eyes are too powerful, focusing light before it reaches the retina. Ortho-K works by flattening the cornea, making it a less powerful lens. After the Ortho-K lenses are taken out in the morning, the eye slowly returns to its myopic state. But this typically takes a whole day – and for some users, two days – before the world turns blurry again.

There is even some evidence that the lenses slow down the deterioration of vision. Ortho-K is also thought to have the potential to slow the rate of or even banish myopia in children.

But is it safe to wear contacts through the night? After all, with orthodox lenses you are warned not to sleep with them in. “That’s not a worry,” said Thomas. “Ortho-K lenses are gas permeable, so oxygen can get through to keep eyes in good order. And wearing them at night cuts down the risk of getting dust between the contact lens and the eye, which can cause irritation with standard lenses.”

I had heard reports of Ortho-K patients in Asia getting eye infections that could have lost them their sight. To be fair, they were thought to have rinsed their lenses in tap water. But it does highlight the need to be very careful when you embark on any treatment related to the eyes. Thomas reassured me that Ortho-K is totally safe providing you follow the proper hygiene procedures. He also stressed that the effects of Ortho-K, unlike those of laser surgery, are totally reversible. “If you stop wearing the lenses, your eyes return to their previous state, and you go back to being short-sighted,” he said.

Price-wise, Ortho-K doesn’t come cheap. It costs around £100 for the initial consultation and provision of the lenses, then £40 or so a month for ongoing care and replacement lenses every six months. This works out about the same as you would pay for standard forms of contact lenses.

According to Ian Goble of No 7 Contact Lenses, a leading UK-based manufacturer of Ortho-K lenses, the method is popular in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and the US, and is gaining ground in this country as more people hear about it. The lenses were originally developed by the Dutch company Procornea and are now available from several UK suppliers. They are prescribed by high street opticians who have been trained in the technique – you’ll find one in most regions.

Once he’d covered the ins and outs of the procedure, Thomas ushered me to a chair to take the standard eye test, with me squinting at the shrinking rows of letters and failing miserably to make out even the top line. The upshot was I have a prescription of -2 in each eye, which means I can get by without stumbling into things like Mr Magoo, but can’t read vehicle license plates at any distance.

The next step was to sit me in front of some scary, RoboCop-looking devices to make accurate maps of my eyes and ensure they were suitable for Ortho-K treatment. The first machine was a split lamp microscope, which shone a blinding blue light into my eyes, enabling Thomas to peer into my corneas and search for disease and damage. Neither of which, thankfully, were present. Thomas also checked that my tear-production was up to scratch by lightly pressing the skin just below my eyes. “Tears are the engine oil or lubricant of the eyes, and good tear production is needed for you to be suitable for Ortho-K treatment,” he said.

After a number of other tests to assess my visual field and explore my retina, it was time to create a precision map of my corneas. I sat in front of the corneal topography device and perched my chin on the chin-rest, which would keep my head still during the delicate digital mapping process. I then stared – one eye at a time – into the tubular lens, which looked like some sort of psychedelic tunnel with swirling bands of orange and yellow light.

Once the mapping was complete, Thomas pointed to the monitor screen to show me the various images of my cornea that had been produced. The minute subtleties of each contour and dimension were highlighted in vivid reds and greens and other shades. This data was then emailed to No 7 Contact Lenses to make the custom-fit contact lenses which I hoped would provide me with 20/20 vision again.

A few days later, the lenses were ready. I was given instructions on their use and how to store and clean them. I then went home for the big test – my first night with the lenses in. Because I hadn’t worn contact lenses for years, it took me a long time to put them in. I kept closing my eyes at the last minute, bottling out. When I finally got them in, my eyes felt sore and uncomfortable, as if I’d got grit in my eyes. But this passed and I eventually fell asleep.

When I awoke the next morning my eyes felt heavy and my vision was blurred. ” Christ, I’ve gone blind,” I thought, getting into a minor panic. But when I took the lenses out, I was stunned: my vision was sharp and focused. I really could see clearly without glasses.

Until that moment, I’d still been slightly sceptical. I thought my eyesight might be corrected a bit with Ortho-K – perhaps to the point of being able to watch TV without glasses, but nothing more dramatic. I didn’t expect a return to 20/20 vision – which was confirmed after a further eyesight test. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a minor miracle – regaining perfect vision without specs or contacts. Had the treatment been around when I was 13 I might well have left school with some qualifications. But if I hadn’t turned into a rebel because of myopia I might never have ended up writing for The Independent, or writing books. Maybe it’s a good thing Ortho-K wasn’t around then.

What is Ortho-K?

The procedure has its roots in a Chinese technique, in which sufferers would sleep with small bags of sand on their eyes. Because myopia is caused by the eyeball lengthening, the weight of the sandbags would temporarily flatten the eye.

Ortho-K was discovered 40 years ago, when opticians noticed that some patients could see better after they removed their contact lenses. At first, a series of lenses were needed, each one flattening the cornea to a small degree over a period of weeks. It is now possible for vision to be restored in two days.

The benefits

* 20/20 vision without contact lenses and glasses.

* Ideal for contact sports and swimming.

* Research suggests that the treatment can slow the progression of short-sightedness in children.

* Non-surgical and 100 per cent reversible.

Black belt

Ortho-K has been a godsend for tae kwondo black belt Carly Wilson. She competes for England internationally, but the sport doesn’t allow glasses and the soft contact lenses she wore dried out or became dislodged during the rough and tumble of the sport. Her opticians suggested she try Ortho-K. ” It turned out to be the answer to my prayers,” she says. “I have perfect vision all day and now I won’t have to consider laser surgery, which was one alternative I might reluctantly have taken.”

Further information

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