Cornea Transplant Surgery and Risks

Cornea Transplant Recovery

During the cornea transplant surgery, you'll be given either a local or general anesthesia depending on your age, the medical shape you are in or the diseased state of your eye. This is an outpatient procedure.

There are a few types of cornea transplant surgery. The most traditional that's been around for more than 100 years is called penetrating keratoplasty (PKP) which involves removing the entire cloudy cornea. The physician cuts out the central part of the diseased cornea, and the donor cornea is placed in the opening and sewn in with fine thread, which stays in until the eye has healed. After the operation, doctors give antibiotic drops to the patient to ensure that infection doesn't take place [source: Duke University Health System Eye Center].

Sometimes only part of the cornea needs to be replaced. The human cornea is made up of three layers. The outer layer is called the epithelial layer, the middle layer is called the stromal layer and the inner layer is called the endothelial layer. The job of the endothelial cells is to keep the cornea clear. When these cells stop working, the cornea can fill with fluid and become opaque. Instead of removing the entire cornea, doctors remove the diseased endothelial cells and replace them with healthy endothelial tissue that help clear the cornea. This type of surgery is called Descemet's stripping endothelial keratoplasty (DSEK)[source: Duke University Health System Eye Center]. When a corneal disease affects only the front of the eye, the deep anterior lamellar keratoplasty (DALK) method involves removing only the front part of the eye and replacing it with a front of a donated cornea [source: Duke University Health System Eye Center].

After the surgery and recovery, patients leave with their designated driver. Typically, they return the following day for a follow-up visit. Your ophthalmologist will decide when the stitches need to be removed. Sometimes they stay in your eye up to a year, or they can be left in your eye permanently [source: Eye Care America].

As with any surgical procedures, there are risks. For the most part, cornea transplants are safe, but complications can include eye infection, cataracts (clouding of the eye's lens), glaucoma (increased pressure inside the eyeball), problems with stitches, swelling, and of course, rejection of the donor cornea [source: Mayo Clinic].

Rejection refers to the process when your body's immune system mistakenly attacks the donor cornea. About 20 percent of transplant patients experience this problem [source: Mayo Clinic]. Signs of rejection include pain, loss of vision, redness and sensitively to light. If detected early, these problems can be treated.

After recovery, your vision might be worse than it was before while your eye gets used to its new cornea. This is normal, so don't be alarmed. In fact, the healing process can take from several weeks to several months.

Related Articles


  • Convery Optometrists. "Eye Facts". (October 2, 2011)
  • Eye Care America. "Corneas Transplants." (September 28, 2011)
  • Duke Eye Center. "Cornea and External Disease". (October 2, 2011)
  • Health Grades. "Cornea Transplant." (September 28, 2011)
  • Massachusetts Eye and Ear. "What is the Cornea?". (September 26, 2011)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Cornea Transplant." (September 28, 2011)
  • Medline Plus. "Transplant Rejection." (Oct. 12, 2011)
  • National Keratoconus Foundation. "What is Keratoconus?". (October 2, 2011)
  • University of Wisconsin Madison School of Public Health. "Descemet's Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty (DSEK)". (October 2, 2011)
  • University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. "Corneal Transplant Surgery: A Guide for Patients." (September 28, 2011)