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New Eye Surgery Holds Promise for Correcting Nearsightedness

The SMILE eye procedure is similar to LASIK in being less invasive, says one doctor.
SMILE procedure.
SMILE procedure.Carl Zeiss Meditec, Inc., 2016 / Carl Zeiss Meditec, Inc., 2016

Cleveland resident Tina Noel struggled with glasses and contacts for most of her life. The 44-year-old has been living a blurry and cloudy life as her aging eyes have progressively become drier due to an autoimmune condition.

“I’m very limited to what I can wear anymore,” says Noel. “I can't wear my contacts anymore because my eyes are just progressively getting drier. I feel my eyes get so tired, I can be driving and my eyes just want to shut when I'm wearing my glasses.”

The Food and Drug Administration in September approved a new laser eye procedure known as Small Incision Lenticule Extraction, or SMILE. Noel's doctor recommended giving it a try.

The procedure employs a laser, similar to the one used in LASIK, to remove a small piece of the cornea to reshape the eye. Many people with corneal changes that excluded them from LASIK could now be eligible for this new surgical option.

Noel's ophthalmologist, Dr. Ronald Krueger of the Cleveland Clinic, said the SMILE procedure is all about being minimally invasive.

“I often say that SMILE is like a laparoscopic LASIK because it’s making a smaller incision,” Krueger told NBC News.

The new laser procedure is designed to treat nearsightedness in patients aged 22 and older. The price tag is roughly $5,000 and is not covered by insurance.

Dr. Ilyse Haberman, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at NYU Langone Medical Center, says that, outside of the U.S., SMILE can correct astigmatism and is being further developed to fix farsightedness. But for patients in the U.S., only very specific candidates can get the SMILE procedure.

"For this reason, SMILE will not replace LASIK in the refractive surgery marketplace, but it is a great alternative for patients that fit the criteria for the procedure," Haberman told NBC News.

As with any eye-related surgical procedure, there is a risk for glare or halos around lights. However, patients who have had the procedure reported less dry eye afterward — something that was crucial for Noel.

For Noel, the new technique has given her the ability to toss the lenses and she's looking forward to driving without worrying.