Keratoconus (KC) is a disorder of the eye which results in progressive thinning of the cornea. This may result in blurry vision, double vision, nearsightedness, astigmatism, and light sensitivity. Usually both eyes are affected. In more severe cases a scarring or a circle may be seen within the cornea.
While the cause is unknown, it is believed to occur due to a combination of genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors. About seven percent of those affected have a family history of the condition. Proposed environmental factors include rubbing the eyes and allergies. The underlying mechanism involves changes of the cornea to a cone shape. Diagnosis is by examination with a slit lamp.
Initially the condition can typically be corrected with glasses or soft contact lenses. As the disease worsens special contact lenses may be required. In most people the disease stabilizes after a few years without severe vision problems. In a small number of people scarring of the cornea occurs and a corneal transplantation is required.
Keratoconus affects about 1 in 2,000 people. It occurs most commonly in late childhood to early adulthood. While it occurs in all populations it may be more frequent in certain ethnic groups such as those of Asian descent. The word is from the Greek kéras meaning cornea and the Latin cōnus meaning cone.
Six genes have been found to be associated with the condition. These genes include BANP-ZNF469, COL4A4, FOXO1, FNDC3B, IMMP2L and RXRA-COL5A1. Others likely also exist.
Despite considerable research, the cause of keratoconus remains unclear. Several sources suggest that keratoconus likely arises from a number of different factors: genetic, environmental or cellular, any of which may form the trigger for the onset of the disease. Once initiated, the disease normally develops by progressive dissolution of Bowman’s layer, which lies between the corneal epithelium and stroma. As the two come into contact, cellular and structural changes in the cornea adversely affect its integrity and lead to the bulging and scarring characteristic of the disorder. Within any individual keratoconic cornea, regions of degenerative thinning coexisting with regions undergoing wound healing may be found. Scarring appears to be an aspect of the corneal degradation; however, a recent, large, multicenter study suggests abrasion by contact lenses may increase the likelihood of this finding by a factor over two.
A number of studies have indicated keratoconic corneas show signs of increased activity by proteases, a class of enzymes that break some of the collagen cross-linkages in the stroma, with a simultaneous reduced expression of protease inhibitors. Other studies have suggested that reduced activity by the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase may be responsible for a build-up of free radicals and oxidising species in the cornea. Whatever the pathogenetical process, the damage caused by activity within the cornea likely results in a reduction in its thickness and biomechanical strength. At an ultrastructural level the weakening of the corneal tissue is associated with a disruption of the regular arrangement of the collagen layers and collagen fibril orientation. While keratoconus is considered a noninflammatory disorder, one study shows wearing rigid contact lenses by people leads to overexpression of proinflammatory cytokines, such as IL-6, TNF-alpha, ICAM-1, and VCAM-1 in the tear fluid.
A genetic predisposition to keratoconus has been observed, with the disease running in certain families, and incidences reported of concordance in identical twins. The frequency of occurrence in close family members is not clearly defined, though it is known to be considerably higher than that in the general population, and studies have obtained estimates ranging between 6% and 19%. Two studies involving isolated, largely homogenetic communities have contrarily mapped putative gene locations to chromosomes 16q and 20q. Most genetic studies agree on an autosomal dominant model of inheritance. A rare, autosomal dominant form of severe keratoconus with anterior polar cataract is caused by a mutation in the seed region of mir-184, a microRNA that is highly expressed in the cornea and anterior lens. Keratoconus is diagnosed more often in people with Down’s syndrome, though the reasons for this link have not yet been determined.
Keratoconus has been associated with atopic diseases, which include asthma, allergies, and eczema, and it is not uncommon for several or all of these diseases to affect one person. Keratoconus is also associated with Alport syndrome, Down syndrome and Marfan syndrome. A number of studies suggest vigorous eye rubbing contributes to the progression of keratoconus, and people should be discouraged from the practice. Keratoconus differs from ectasia which is caused by LASIK eye surgery. Post-LASIK Ectasia has been associated with the excessive removal of the eye’s stromal bed tissue during surgery.
Prior to any physical examination, the diagnosis of keratoconus frequently begins with an ophthalmologist’s or optometrist’s assessment of the person’s medical history, particularly the chief complaint and other visual symptoms, the presence of any history of ocular disease or injury which might affect vision, and the presence of any family history of ocular disease. An eye chart, such as a standard Snellen chart of progressively smaller letters, is then used to determine the person’s visual acuity. The eye examination may proceed to measurement of the localized curvature of the cornea with a manual keratometer, with detection of irregular astigmatism suggesting a possibility of keratoconus. Severe cases can exceed the instrument’s measuring ability. A further indication can be provided by retinoscopy, in which a light beam is focused on the person’s retina and the reflection, or reflex, observed as the examiner tilts the light source back and forth. Keratoconus is amongst the ophthalmic conditions that exhibit a scissor reflex action of two bands moving toward and away from each other like the blades of a pair of scissors.
If keratoconus is suspected, the ophthalmologist or optometrist will search for other characteristic findings of the disease by means of slit lamp examination of the cornea. An advanced case is usually readily apparent to the examiner, and can provide for an unambiguous diagnosis prior to more specialized testing. Under close examination, a ring of yellow-brown to olive-green pigmentation known as a Fleischer ring can be observed in around half of keratoconic eyes. The Fleischer ring, caused by deposition of the iron oxide hemosiderin within the corneal epithelium, is subtle and may not be readily detectable in all cases, but becomes more evident when viewed under a cobalt blue filter. Similarly, around 50% of subjects exhibit Vogt’s striae, fine stress lines within the cornea caused by stretching and thinning. The striae temporarily disappear while slight pressure is applied to the eyeball. A highly pronounced cone can create a V-shaped indentation in the lower eyelid when the person’s gaze is directed downwards, known as Munson’s sign. Other clinical signs of keratoconus will normally have presented themselves long before Munson’s sign becomes apparent, and so this finding, though a classic sign of the disease, tends not to be of primary diagnostic importance.
A handheld keratoscope, sometimes known as “Placido’s disk”, can provide a simple noninvasive visualization of the surface of the cornea by projecting a series of concentric rings of light onto the cornea. A more definitive diagnosis can be obtained using corneal topography, in which an automated instrument projects the illuminated pattern onto the cornea and determines its topography from analysis of the digital image. The topographical map indicates any distortions or scarring in the cornea, with keratoconus revealed by a characteristic steepening of curvature which is usually below the centreline of the eye. The technique can record a snapshot of the degree and extent of the deformation as a benchmark for assessing its rate of progression. It is of particular value in detecting the disorder in its early stages when other signs have not yet presented.
Patients with keratoconus typically present initially with mild astigmatism and myopia, commonly at the onset of puberty, and are diagnosed by the late teenage years or early 20s. The disease can, however, present or progress at any age; in rare cases, keratoconus can present in children or not until later adulthood. A diagnosis of the disease at an early age may indicate a greater risk of severity in later life. Patients’ vision will seem to fluctuate over a period of months, driving them to change lens prescriptions frequently, but as the condition worsens, contact lenses are required in the majority of cases. The course of the disorder can be quite variable, with some patients remaining stable for years or indefinitely, while others progress rapidly or experience occasional exacerbations over a long and otherwise steady course. Most commonly, keratoconus progresses for a period of 10 to 20 years before the course of the disease generally ceases in the third and fourth decades of life.
The National Eye Institute reports keratoconus is the most common corneal dystrophy in the United States, affecting about one in 2,000 Americans, but some reports place the figure as high as one in 500. The inconsistency may be due to variations in diagnostic criteria, with some cases of severe astigmatism interpreted as those of keratoconus, and vice versa. A long-term study found a mean incidence rate of 2.0 new cases per 100,000 population per year. Some studies have suggested a higher prevalence amongst females, or that people of South Asian ethnicity are 4.4 times as likely to suffer from keratoconus as Caucasians, and are also more likely to be affected with the condition earlier.
Keratoconus is normally bilateral (affecting both eyes) although the distortion is usually asymmetric and is rarely completely identical in both corneas. Unilateral cases tend to be uncommon, and may in fact be very rare if a very mild condition in the better eye is simply below the limit of clinical detection. It is common for keratoconus to be diagnosed first in one eye and not until later in the other. As the condition then progresses in both eyes, the vision in the earlier-diagnosed eye will often remain poorer than that in its fellow.
Several other corneal ectatic disorders also cause thinning of the cornea:
Keratoglobus is a very rare condition that causes corneal thinning primarily at the margins, resulting in a spherical, slightly enlarged eye. It may be genetically related to keratoconus.
Pellucid marginal degeneration causes thinning of a narrow (1–2 mm) band of the cornea, usually along the inferior corneal margin. It causes irregular astigmatism that, in the early stages of the disease can be corrected by spectacles. Differential diagnosis may be made by slit-lamp examination.
Posterior keratoconus, a distinct disorder despite its similar name, is a rare abnormality, usually congenital, which causes a nonprogressive thinning of the inner surface of the cornea, while the curvature of the anterior surface remains normal. Usually only a single eye is affected.
Post-LASIK ectasia is a complication of LASIK eye surgery.