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What problems can develop from a corneal transplant?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Even with a fairly high success rate, some problems can develop, such as rejection of the new cornea. Warning signs of rejection are decreased vision, increased redness of the eye, increased pain, and increased sensitivity to light. If any of these last for more than six hours, you should immediately call your ophthalmologist. Rejection can be successfully treated if medication is administered at the first sign of symptoms.

A study supported by the National Eye Institute (NEI) suggests that matching the blood type, but not the tissue type, of the recipient with that of the cornea donor may improve the success rate of corneal transplants in people at high risk for graft failure. Approximately 20 percent of corneal transplant patients?between 6,000 and 8,000 a year-reject their donor corneas. A study found that high-risk patients may reduce the likelihood of corneal rejection if their blood types match those of the cornea donors. The study also concluded that intensive steroid treatment after transplant surgery improves the chances of a successful transplant.

This answer is based on source information from National Eye Institute.
Corneal transplants are rejected 5 percent to 30 percent of the time. The rejected cornea clouds and vision deteriorates.
Most rejections, if treated promptly, can be stopped with minimal injury. Warning signs of rejection are:
  • Persistent discomfort
  • Light sensitivity 
  • Redness
  • Change in vision
Any of these symptoms should be reported to your ophthalmologist immediately.
Other complications include:
  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Swelling or detachment of the retina
  • Glaucoma
All of these complications can be treated.
A corneal transplant can be repeated, usually with good results, but the overall rejection rates for repeated transplants are higher than for the first transplant.
Irregular curvature of the transplanted cornea (astigmatism) may slow the return of vision but can also be treated. Vision may continue to improve up to a year after surgery.
If the surgery is successful, other existing eye conditions, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy, may limit vision after surgery. Even with such problems, a corneal transplant may still be worthwhile.
A successful corneal transplant requires care and attention on the part of both patient and physician. However, no other surgery has so much to offer when the unhealthy cornea is deeply scarred or swollen.
Corneal transplant surgery would not be possible without the thousands of generous donors and their families who have donated corneal tissue so that others may see.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.