Corneal anesthesia -- the medical term is neurotrophic keratopathy -- is a potentially devastating condition that can arise after certain viral infections of the eye, brain tumors or surgery, diabetes, contact lens abuse, and other causes. It occurs when the nerves to the cornea are damaged, leaving the eye unable to feel sensation when injured. “Without the ability to sense pain, the eye cannot protect itself from, or heal properly after, scratches and injuries,” said Ilya Leyngold, MD, a plastic and reconstructive eye surgeon at Duke. This can lead to severe infection and vision loss.
Until recently, treatments for corneal anesthesia focused on protecting the eye from further damage -- using drops to keep the eye lubricated, wearing a protective hard contact lens, or having the eyelids stitched together -- but didn't treat the problem. Several years ago, doctors considered replacing the damaged corneal nerves with a healthy nerve found underneath the eyebrow. However, because the extensive procedure required a large surgical cut from ear to ear, it was rarely considered as an option.