Around 30,000 Britons have the eye disease keratoconus, where the eye becomes rugby-ball shaped.
Carl Evans, 28, a trainee manager from Lytham in Lancashire, had a new procedure which could also help people with astigmatism and short-sight.
'My eyes were starting to bulge like a pointed rugby ball,' said Carl Evans
A few years ago a friend mentioned I was squinting.
He was right: I'd never worn glasses, but over the previous six months I'd noticed that I squinted when reading the paper or watching TV.
I had an eye test and was referred to a specialist. He broke the news that I had a degenerative disease called keratoconus, which meant that my eyes weren't a round football shape as they should be.
Instead, they were starting to bulge like a pointed rugby ball, causing blurred vision, because the light wasn't falling evenly at the back of the eye. This was caused by the cornea, the clear bit at the front, becoming thinner near the centre.
I was completely shocked, as no one in my family has had eye disease.
Even worse, the specialist also said keratoconus was a progressive disease, so things would only get worse over the next ten years or so as the disease ran its course.
He said the usual treatment was to have a corneal transplant.
But I couldn't face the idea of eye surgery, and it would take up to 18 months after the operation for my sight to settle down.
So we agreed I'd try contact lenses — big ones that don't just slip off the eye's pointy bit like normal contacts would.
But when I took the lenses out at night, my sight was clearly getting worse.
Then, in 2010, five years after I was diagnosed, I went for a check-up with a new consultant, Imran Rahman. He confirmed my sight was worse, then mentioned a new procedure using microwaves to shrink the cornea back to its normal round shape.
It would all be done from outside my eye, so there would be no incisions or blades. I would be one of the first in Britain to have the operation.
So in December that year, I had the surgery on my right eye. It took just 30 seconds.
I lay on a bed as the surgeon clipped back the eyelid and anaesthetised it. I could see a bright light shining in my eyes, and then a tube coming towards me.
I heard a couple of beeps as the machine zapped my eye, and that eye went dark for a few seconds.
Immediately afterwards, everything was clearer — it was just amazing.
Three weeks later, I went back to have the treatment to fix the cornea shape.
Basically, they shone a light on my eye for half an hour. I still wear a contact lens in my left eye, but I'm now planning to have that eye done, too.
Imran Rahman is an ophthalmologist at Blackpool Victoria Hospital and the Face and Eye clinic in Manchester. He says:
Keratoconus typically begins when people are in their late teens or early 20s. The cornea thins and starts to bulge outwards
Keratoconus typically begins when people are in their late teens or early 20s.
Doctors don't fully understand what causes it, but it can run in families and normally lasts until the late 20s, when it simply stops.
The cornea, the clear window at the front of the eye, thins and starts to bulge outwards.
This means that the centre of the cornea — crucial for vision — is pushed forward, causing it to project light unevenly on to the back of the eye, so sight is very blurred.
In the early stages, glasses or contact lenses can help, but as the cornea becomes more pointed, the lenses tends to slide off.
We can try scleral lenses, which are egg-shaped and cover most of the front of the eye (they're as big as 2p pieces), but many patients cannot tolerate them.
For these reasons, one in ten people with keratoconus face a corneal transplant, which is incredibly disruptive because we use stitches to hold the donor cornea in place for up to 18 months until scar tissue develops to hold it.
During this time, vision is very blurred and at least 95 per cent of patients still need glasses or contact lenses afterwards. But a new procedure called Keraflex — invented in the U.S. two or three years ago — reshapes the cornea without an incision. Instead, we use heat to shrink some of the collagen (protein fibres) in the cornea, to restore its proper shape. We heat a 5mm ring in the cornea, leaving the middle untouched. This shrinks the abnormally bulging sides of the cornea and, as a result, the central circle flattens and goes back to its normal round shape. (It's rather like cooking pieces of chicken, which shrink as the heat makes the fibres tighten.) Eventually these fibres would relax again, allowing the cornea to resume its cone shape after six months, so we use collagen cross-linking to fix them in place for good. This involves bathing the cornea with drops of riboflavin (vitamin B2) and then exposing it to ultraviolet light. This process produces special oxygen molecules that cause the collagen fibres in the cornea to bond and stiffen. This technique has huge potential for other eye conditions such as astigmatism and short-sight. (Currently, surgery for these usually involves cutting a flap in the eye and then treating the cornea behind the flap with lasers.) Our new procedure takes about 30 seconds. First, we feed the patient's eye prescription into the Keraflex machine, which calculates how much thermal energy is needed to shrink the fibres to the right shape. The patient has local anaesthetic drops. I mark the area of the cornea I want to treat with a special pen. The Keraflex machine has a tiny tube attached to it which hovers slightly above the eye. I look down the tube and check it is centred on the pen mark, then direct the thermal energy down this tube. This lasts for a fraction of a millisecond, heating a ring in the cornea to 60-70c. After covering the cornea with a soft contact lens and an eye shield, the patient goes home 15 minutes later with antibiotic drops and painkillers. A week later, I check the cornea is the correct shape with a scan. If necessary, I could give a second treatment, but I haven't had to do so yet. Then I fix the cornea in its correct shape using cross-linking. This will fix the fibres for five to ten years, but by this time the disease should have run its course