Cosmetic Iris Implants Carry Risk of Permanent Eye Damage, Vision Loss

From Van Morrison ("Brown Eyed Girl") to Elton John ("Blue Eyes") to Erykah Badu ("Green Eyes"), eye color has given many people something to sing about. Yet not everyone is happy with the way their eye color defines them. Colored contact lenses are a popular way to at least temporarily make your brown eyes blue, green or another color. Until recently, permanent eye-color change has not been possible, but now a new procedure does more than just change the eyes' color, it frequently damages them just as permanently.

Eye color is determined by the iris, a colored ring of muscle fibers behind the clear cornea and in front of the lens. Iris implants are marketed on the Internet as a safe way to change your eye color, but studies of people who've had the procedure show iris implants can seriously damage eyes and vision. In one case, a patient lost most of her natural irises in both eyes. As a result, she suffered severe light sensitivity and lost much of her vision.

"Some online discussions say the procedure is safe, claiming that 'the technology used is similar to that used to treat cataracts.' This is inaccurate as well as misleading," says ophthalmologist James Tsai, M.D., a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology who has published research on the medical complications of iris implants. "We strongly caution people against having cosmetic iris implant surgery."

See Also: Dangers of Non-prescription Contacts

About Iris Implant Surgery

During iris implant surgery, an artificial iris made of silicone is folded and inserted into a slit that has been cut into the cornea. Then the iris is unfolded and adjusted to cover the natural iris. Local anesthesia is used.

Iris implant surgery was developed to treat people who have an iris that did not develop normally (for example, in conditions such as aniridia or coloboma) or who lack a natural iris, most often seen after a traumatic injury to the eye. These patients also risk complications from implant surgery, but the benefits of gaining an iris may outweigh their risks. Complications appear to be more common in people who have functional natural irises and yet chose implants for cosmetic reasons.

What You Need to Know

Studies show that serious complications of the iris-implant procedure can include:

  • Reduced vision or blindness;
  • Elevated pressure inside the eye that can lead to glaucoma, a potentially blinding disease;
  • Cataract (clouding of the eye's naturally clear lens);
  • Injury to the cornea, the clear outer area of the eye that focuses light and makes vision possible. If severe enough, a corneal transplant may be needed;
  • Inflammation of the iris or areas around it, leading to pain, blurred vision and tearing.

When complications occur, the implants often must be removed via additional surgery, which carries its own risks of damaging the eye. In one study, nine of 14 patients needed their implants removed.

Cosmetic iris implants have not been evaluated by any U.S. regulatory agency or tested for safety in clinical trials. They are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Currently, Americans who want the surgery travel to Panama, where the procedure is performed by several doctors.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Glaucoma Society and the Contact Lens Association of Ophthalmologists strongly discourage consumers from undergoing this surgery, due to the documented potential damage to healthy vision.

Anyone interested in changing their eye color – for whatever reason – should talk to an ophthalmologist before undergoing any procedure or purchasing colored contact lenses (which, by law, require a prescription).

Page updated: Oct. 29, 2014

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