Our eye is a remarkable optical system. The outer lens, the cornea, gathers and focuses light from objects near and far, then the flexible inner lens allows us to focus on objects at different distances. Small imperfections in the cornea can be corrected for with glasses, contact lenses, or even using laser reshaping procedures like LASIK.

But for some people, the outer lens isn’t just deformed, it’s deforming, growing more and more conical. As the lens gets more and more deformed, the inner lens can no longer focus light, and a person becomes essentially blind. And the risk of this condition is increased significantly by sleep apnea.

What Is Keratoconus

Keratoconus is an unusual disease. For most people, our corneas stop growing at a certain point and remain stable essentially for the rest of our lives. That’s why LASIK can give permanent results by reshaping the cornea. Other vision changes that occur later in life are related to either the flexible secondary lens or the photoreceptors at the back of the eye. But for people with keratoconus, the cornea continues to change shape throughout life.

Close up of a man's eye

We’re not entirely certain why. It doesn’t seem that the condition is genetic, since the condition doesn’t seem to run in families. Eye irritation is another potential candidate. This might be caused by dry eyes or eye rubbing.

People with keratoconus will notice visual symptoms like:

  • Light sensitivity
  • Halos or ghosting around lights and objects, especially at night
  • Tired eyes
  • Increased headaches and eye pain

As well as eye irritation and redness.

Initially, treatment for keratoconus might include contact lenses that encourage the eye to reshape. Small discs known as intacs, can also be inserted into the eye to correct symptoms.

However, keratoconus will often continue to worsen until the only option is a cornea transplant.

The Sleep Apnea/ Keratoconus Connection

We have long suspected a tie between sleep apnea and keratoconus. The study looked at the health records of more than 16,000 people with keratoconus and matching controls.

Comparing the two groups, it was found that people with sleep apnea were about 13% more likely to develop keratoconus. This is even more striking because diabetes, one of the most common complications of sleep apnea, is actually protective against keratoconus.

The researchers don’t offer an explanation, but we do know that floppy eye syndrome has been described as a sure sign of sleep apnea, and floppy eye syndrome is considered one of the leading causes of keratoconus.

Many complications improve or disappear with sleep apnea treatment. We don’t yet know if keratoconus is one of them, but it probably won’t hurt. To learn more about the risks and complications of sleep apnea, please call (402) 493-4175 for an appointment with an Omaha sleep dentist at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center.