Life with Keratoconus: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Keratoconus causes the dome-shaped cornea to stretch and morph into a cone-like bulge, leading to impaired vision. The eye condition often affects young adults in their teens to late 20s — a time in life when people branch out into the world through school, work and social development. The vision distortions, blurriness and light sensitivity caused by keratoconus create unique challenges for growing teens and burgeoning adults. These eye issues can worsen for 10 to 20 years until the damage stabilizes. 

At Boston Eye Physicians and Surgeons, we specialize in treating eye conditions, including keratoconus, which relies on early diagnosis and regular eye exams to manage the vision problems. 

What Causes Keratoconus? 

The estimated incidence of keratoconus is one in 2,000 people, but the exact number is unknown, as is the cause. There are no lifestyle, cultural or geographical risk factors, though up to 15 percent of people with Down syndrome develop keratoconus. The eye condition is linked to extreme nearsightedness and medical conditions such as allergies that cause you to rub or itch your eyes. Poor contact lens habits, UV sun exposure and corneal enzyme imbalance may play a role along with genetics.

The cause of keratoconus is likely a combination of factors, and regular eye exams are the best defense against this progressive eye condition.

Keratoconus Symptoms

The cone-like bulge in the cornea caused by keratoconus leads to worsening symptoms. Early signs include blurry vision and light sensitivity, which may progress differently in each eye. Over time, the changes in the cornea’s shape will distort all vision day or night, including these symptoms:

  • Halos around lights
  • “Ghosting” images
  • Eyestrain
  • Eye pain
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty driving, especially at night
  • Eye irritation
  • Eye rubbing due to itching sensation
  • Problems reading and watching television

These symptoms occur because your vision relies on the clear window of your eye (cornea) to refract light onto the retina, located at the back of your eye. A severely misshapen cornea due to keratoconus can’t direct the incoming light correctly, and this causes visual distortions everywhere you look.

Keratoconus Treatment Options

Many young people living with keratoconus hope the progression will slow or stop before it interferes with their quality of life, but this is often not the case. It can take 20 years for the condition to halt, which is long for anyone, especially those looking to start their professional careers or pursue higher education. The treatment for keratoconus depends on the severity. Early cases can be managed with soft contact lenses or eyeglasses that correct the vision changes caused by an evolving corneal shape, such as astigmatism and nearsightedness.

Rigid gas permeable (RGP) contact lenses may treat moderate keratoconus to correct vision as the cone-like curvature elongates. RGP lenses are fitted precisely, and frequent eye exams can help ensure you’re seeing as clearly as possible. Intracorneal rings may be utilized to help contact lenses conform to the affected eye.

Corneal cross-linking is a new treatment that we offer at Boston Eye Physicians and Surgeons that may stop the progression of keratoconus. The treatment involves administering riboflavin (vitamin B2) eye drops to the eye and activating it with UV light for 30 minutes to strengthen the collagen fibers and tissues in the cornea. This FDA-approved procedure can improve vision for patients of any age and may stop keratoconus from getting worse. For severe cases, corneal transplants can replace the keratoconus cornea with healthy tissue from a donor. Corneal cross-linking and corneal transplants can restore a good quality of life.

Contact Boston Eye Physicians and Surgeons in Brookline if you think you have keratoconus. Call (617) 232-9600 to book an appointment today.