Pain Reduction After Photoablation

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 by Amy Lin, MD on May 3, 2023.


Refractive surgery was first approved by the FDA in 1995 to surgically correct refractive error, and now is routinely used in daily practice by ophthalmologists [1]. Laser in situ Keratomileusis (LASIK) is the most popular refractive surgery technique performed because of the quick recovery time and limited pain after the procedure. Not all patients that qualify for refractive surgery are good candidates for LASIK. Therefore, Photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) may be a better option for patients with epithelial basement membrane disease or inadequate corneal thickness [2]. The most prominent drawbacks to PRK are its longer recovery time and the increased risk for ocular pain after the procedure [2][1][3]. Multiple studies have been performed to address a way to control pain after refractive surgery. These studies looked at oral medication versus topical medication, bandage contact lenses, as well as the best time to begin a pain regimen. However, no definitive method has proved to be the most reliable for mitigating pain after surface ablation.

Pre-operative Considerations

Dry eye is the leading cause of pain and discomfort after refractive surgery. Artificial tears, nutritional supplements such as omega 3 fatty acids and flax seed oil, lacrimal punctal occlusion, lifitegrast and topical cyclosporine may alleviate the symptoms of dry eye. LASIK induces neurotrophic epitheliopathy and thus causes ocular dryness. Topical cyclosporine 0.05% improves the symptoms of dryness by treating underlying inflammation and enhances nerve regeneration [4]. Studies have looked at pre-treating PRK patients with GABA-analogs such as gabapentin and pregabalin. These studies have not shown any statistical significance in reducing post-operative pain [2]. Another controlled study showed a significant reduction of post-PRK ocular pain when pre-treating eyes with topical diclofenac, which is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), two hours prior to surgery [3].

Post-Operative Considerations

NSAIDs are used commonly after PRK due to its effectiveness at reducing pain. NSAIDs help prevent prostaglandin release associated with corneal trauma [5]. Additionally, after surface ablation procedures such as laser epithelial keratomileusis ( LASEK ) or PRK, bandage contact lenses are routinely applied to patients’ eyes to help re-epithelialization and healing to improve comfort and reduce pain [6] [7] In addition, bandage contact lenses can act as a reservoir for the medication such as NSAIDs for sustained release [8]. Ocular pain is common during the early post-operative period after PRK. Some studies deferred pain management measures until after the procedure. A prospective, randomized, controlled study evaluated three groups: one was given a placebo, one was given pregabalin 75mg orally, and was given gabapentin 300mg orally. This study did not find any significant difference in pain control [2]. Another study evaluated post-PRK pain control with gabapentin 300mg orally versus oxycodone and acetaminophen. In this study, the gabapentin group felt significantly less pain on the morning of the second post-operative day only [1]. Not all studies looked specifically at oral medications to reduce pain. One study did not use any pain medications or eye drops before performing LASIK, but looked at the efficacy of one drop of topical diclofenac immediately after the procedure. The results showed patients who received diclofenac were less symptomatic four hours after the procedure [9]. Another study showed no significant differences in safety or discomfort with use of bromfenac 0.09% twice daily versus ketorolac 0.4% 4 times a day post-operatively.[10] Chilled balanced salt solution used intraoperatively immediately after excimer laser treatment has not been shown to decrease postoperative pain, but is a common practice.[11] Application of cold patches on the eyelids every 30 minutes for 24 hours post-operatively, while the patient is awake, was found to significantly decrease pain.[12] Oral analgesics can be used as a “rescue medication” [2] if topical eye drops are not providing adequate analgesia for post-operative pain. It has been shown that patients who used both a post-operative oral NSAID and a bandage contact lens resorted to less consumption of prescribed oral analgesics [5]. With topical NSAIDs, there is associated risk of corneal toxicity and melting. By using a single dose approach after surgery, pain relief is provided with limited chance of corneal toxicity [9]. Another method of postoperative pain control is topical anesthetic, which is controversial, given the risk of delayed epithelial healing with topical anesthetic. However, older studies had concluded that dilute proparacaine 0.05% or giving patients 10 drops of non-dilute tetracaine 0.5% did not extend the number of days to epithelial healing compared to patients not receiving postoperative anesthetic drops[13][14]. A meta-analysis concluded that systemic NSAIDS and opioid medications, topical NSAIDS, cold patches, bandage contact lenses, and topical anesthetics provided improved pain control over other treatments.[15]


The post-operative risk of ocular pain after corneal photorefractive surgery should be discussed with all patients. Pre-operative and postoperative topical NSAID drops such as diclofenac, ketorolac, and bromfenac, oral gabapentin, bandage contact lenses and oral analgesics are tools available for pain management.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Nissman, Steven, Rochelle Tractenberg, Anita Babbar-Goel, and Joseph Pasternak. "Oral Gabapentin for the Treatment of Postoperative Pain after Photorefractive Keratectomy." American Journal of Ophthalmology 145 (2008): 623-29. Web.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Pakravan, Mohammad, Maryam Roshani, Shahin Yazdani, Amir Faramazi, and Mehdi Yaseri. "Pregabalin and Gabapentin for Post-photorefractive Keratectomy Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial." European Journal of Ophthalmology 22.7 (2012): S106-113. Web.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mohammadour, Mehrdad, MD, Mahmood Jabbarand, MD, Mojgan Nikdel, MD, Mohsen Adelpour, MD, and Nasser Karimi. "Effect of Preemptive Topical Diclofenac on Postoperative Pain Relief after Photorefractive Keratectomy." Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgery 37 (2011): 633-37. Web.
  4. Nettune, GR, MD, and SC Plfugfelder, MD. "Post-LASIK Tear Dysfunction and Desesthesia." Ocular Surface 8.3 (2010): 135-45. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Arshinoff, Steve A., MD, Michael D. Mills, BSc, and Susan Haber, BSc. "Pharmacotherapy of Photorefractive Keratectomy." Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgery 22 (1996): 1037-043. Web.
  6. Gil-Cazorla R, Teus MA, Hernández-Verdejo JL, De Benito-Llopis L, García-González M. Comparative study of two silicone hydrogel contact lenses used as bandage contact lenses after LASEK. Optom Vis Sci 2008; 85(9):884-8.
  7. Szaflik JP, Ambroziak AM, Szaflik J. Therapeutic use of a lotrafilcon A silicone hydrogel soft contact lens as a bandage after LASEK surgery. Eye Contact Lens 2004; 30(1):59-62.
  8. Cherry, Paul M.H., FRCS. "The Treatment of Pain following Excimer Laser Photorefractive Keratectomy: Additive Effect of Local Anesthetic Drops, Topical Diclofenac, and Bandage Contact Lens." Ophthalmic Surgery and Lasers 27.5 (1996): S477-480. Web.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Parker, Jared, MD, Amit Tandon, MD, Roni Shtein, MD, H. Kaz Soong, MD, Theresa N. Cooney, MD, David C. Musch, PhD, MPH, and Shahzad I. Mian, MD. "Management of Pain with Diclofenac after Femtosecond-assisted Laser in Situ Keratomileusis." Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgery 37 (2011): 569-73. Web.
  10. Sher N, Golben M, Bond W, Trattler W, Tauber S, Voirin T. Topical bromfenac 0.09% vs ketorolac 0.4% for the control of pain, photophobia, and discomfort following PRK. J Refract Surg 2009;25(2):214-20.
  11. S. Zarei-Ghanavati, N. Nosrat, N. Morovatdar, et al. Efficacy of corneal cooling on postoperative pain management after photorefractive keratectomy: a contralateral eye randomized clinical trial. J Curr Ophthalmol 2017;29:264-269.
  12. Zeng Y, Li Y, Gao JH. Application of cold patch in relieving pain after transepithelial photorefractive keratectomy. Pain Res Manag 2015;20:195-198.
  13. Shahinian et al. Dilute topical proparacaine for pain relief following photorefractive keratectomy. Ophthalmology 1997;104(8):1327-32.
  14. Brilakia and Deutsch. Topical tetracaine with soft bandage contact lens pain control after photorefractive keratectomy. J Refract Surg 2000;16(4):444-7.
  15. Steigleman WA, Rose-Nussbaumer J, Al-Mohtaseb Z, Santhiago MR, Lin CC, Pantanelli SM, Kim SJ, Schallhorn JM. Management of Pain after Photorefractive Keratectomy: A Report by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Ophthalmology 2023;130(1):87-98.
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