Conditions Treated With Laser Photocoagulation

Laser photocoagulation is a type of laser surgery in the eye. Retina specialists (medical eye doctors that specialize in disorders of the retina) use laser photocoagulation to destroy leaking blood vessels in the retina, which is a light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. It is used for several eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic retinopathy.

This article will discuss uses for laser photocoagulation, who performs laser photocoagulation, associated risks, procedure steps, and insurance and cost.

Older male patient is talking to male eye doctor.

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Eye Anatomy Review

Your retina is a layer of cells in the back of your eye and is the size of a silver dollar. The cells in the retina detect light and send signals to the brain to help you see.

The retina has several parts, one of which is called the macula. The macula helps you have clear central vision so you can read and see faces. A form of macular degeneration called wet AMD affects the macula.

The retina has blood vessels, but the blood vessels caused by diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration are abnormal ones.

Laser Photocoagulation Uses 

Laser photocoagulation is versatile, meaning that it has several uses for eye problems. Here are some common conditions that it can help treat.

Diabetic Retinopathy 

Some people with diabetes develop diabetic retinopathy, which can threaten your sight and cause permanent blindness. Diabetic retinopathy can cause abnormal blood vessels to grow in the eye. This can lead to the swelling and leaking of these blood vessels. Laser photocoagulation can help to seal up the growth of blood vessels and prevent the growth of new blood vessels that threaten vision. It may make it harder for you to see color or to see at night.

Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration has two types: dry type and wet type. It specifically threatens the macula, the area of the retina responsible for central vision. Blood and fluid that leaks from abnormal blood vessels can threaten vision, which is present in only the wet type.

When used for wet-type macular degeneration, laser photocoagulation can help to seal off these blood vessels. Its use is usually reserved for people with severe macular degeneration and those with abnormal blood vessels that are clustered together. This type of treatment would be less helpful for those with scattered vessels or if they are in the central area of the macula.

There are other treatments for macular degeneration, such as medications that slow down the growth of abnormal blood vessels.

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastoma is a type of cancer in the eye that starts in the retina. Most cases occur in infants and children. Photocoagulation can target and destroy blood vessels around a tumor. It is only used for small tumors in the back of the eye.

Retinal Detachment

Retinal detachment is what happens when your retina pulls away from its normal location. It is also called a detached retina. A retinal detachment is a medical emergency because it can cause permanent vision loss. Laser photocoagulation will burn the area near the detachment to make a scar. This scar will assist the detached area of the retina to reattach to tissue.

Retinal Tear

As the name implies, a retinal tear is a rip or tear in the retina. It can cause blurry vision, and it can lead to a retinal detachment. Photocoagulation will stop fluid from flowing beneath the retina, which might lead to a retinal detachment.

Who Performs Laser Photocoagulation?

A type of medical doctor called a retina specialist will perform laser photocoagulation. Retina specialists have completed medical school and a residency to become ophthalmologists. They then go on to further specialize in diseases of the retina. This gives them special training to safely perform laser photocoagulation.

Laser Photocoagulation Risks

Laser photocoagulation is effective, but it also has certain risks, such as:

  • Vision loss: It may cause a blind spot in the area where a scar forms. The vision loss may not be as bad as any vision loss caused by the disease the doctor is treating, but this is not known in advance. It is also possible for the laser to inadvertently treat the central macula, causing an even more severe blind spot.
  • Damage to the retina caused by the scar that formed from treatment: This damage may occur right after surgery or years later.
  • Blood vessels that grow again: Retina specialists can remedy this by repeating the laser treatment.
  • Bleeding in the eye
  • Reduced color vision
  • Lowered night vision

Laser Photocoagulation Procedure Steps

Here is what to expect before, during, and after laser photocoagulation.

Before

There is not a lot of preparation needed before laser photocoagulation. You will want to arrange for someone to take you home afterward as you will probably have blurry vision.

Beforehand, the eye doctor or a staff member will dilate (enlarge) your eyes using special eye drops. Your eyes will stay dilated for a couple of hours after surgery.

Ask your doctor if you should stop using any medicines before laser photocoagulation.

During

Most laser photocoagulations take place at an eye doctor's office. You will go home the same day as your procedure. Here is what to expect:

  1. Your eye doctor will insert or inject anesthetic eye drops so you don't feel what is going on during the procedure.
  2. You will receive a special contact lens on the eye having the procedure. This contact lens helps to focus the laser light onto the retina.
  3. The eye doctor will focus the laser and use it to destroy any abnormal blood vessels. Although you may feel some slight stinging, it usually is not painful. You also may see some light flashes.
  4. You may have your eye temporarily covered.

After

When you are able to go home, make sure to follow any instructions from your eye doctor. Here are some other things to expect after laser photocoagulation:

  • You may have to wear an eye patch or dark sunglasses for a day.
  • Your eye may feel a little sore. Find out if you can take over-the-counter pain medications if needed.
  • Let your eye doctor know if you have pain, redness, or swelling in the eye.
  • It's normal if you have some blurry vision after laser photocoagulation.

Let your eye doctor know immediately if you have any of the following:

  • A major decline in vision
  • An increase in flashes or floaters
  • Feeling as if your vision is blocked by a black curtain
  • New pain in the eye or an increase in pain

Insurance Coverage and Cost

Make sure to check with your insurance provider to find out if it will cover laser photocoagulation before you have this type of surgery. Even if your insurance covers it, you still may need to pay for a portion of the related costs. Costs can vary depending on your provider and what the procedure is for.

Summary

Laser photocoagulation is a laser-based eye surgery that destroys abnormal blood vessels. It can help stop further vision loss. It is used by retina specialists for several eye diseases, including diabetic retinopathy and retinal detachment. Risks include a new blind spot and reduced color or night vision. Laser photocoagulation involves the use of drops to make your eyes wider followed by the use of the laser.

A Word From Verywell

If your eye doctor says that you need laser photocoagulation, make sure to ask any questions you have regarding the procedure and how to care for your eyes afterward. It also is important to maintain any follow-up appointments.

If you are having laser photocoagulation for diabetic retinopathy, do your best to control your blood sugar. Although laser photocoagulation may cause some mild vision loss, the goal is to prevent a larger amount of vision loss in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is recovery after laser photocoagulation?

    It can take about two weeks, but the exact recovery time will vary for each person. It's normal for your vision to be blurry the first 24 hours after surgery. Make sure to follow any activity limitations recommended by your doctor to give your eye time to heal.

  • Should you take off work after laser coagulation?

    You should take off work the day of your procedure. You will probably be able to return to work the following day. If your work is physical, ask your eye doctor when you can return to work.

  • Is laser photocoagulation a quick procedure?

    Yes. It takes about 15 minutes.

  • How safe is laser photocoagulation?

    Laser photocoagulation is generally safe and effective. However, it may create a blind spot. Any surgery has associated risks and complications. Talk to your eye doctor about these before proceeding with surgery.


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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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