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Origins | Jul/Aug '23

Keratomes in Ophthalmic Surgery

A historical overview and discussion of modern keratomes.

First, we must define what a keratome does. This surgical instrument, sharp on one or both edges, is used to cut into a surface, such as the cornea for incisional or lamellar surgery. A microkeratome is a precision surgical instrument designed to create corneal flaps for in situ keratomileusis, automated lamellar keratoplasty, or LASIK. The thickness of a normal human cornea ranges from around 490 to 600 µm. A microkeratome creates flaps from 90 to 200 µm thick.

Keratomes have been used for eye surgery for thousands of years.


The first documented use of keratomes in ophthalmology was in ancient Egypt. Nine pages of the Ebers Papyrus, a compilation of Egyptian medical texts dated about 1550 BC, are devoted to eye conditions.1,2 In the early 5th century BC, Sushruta described using keratomes or blades for lamellar and incisional ophthalmic surgery including cataract and pterygium removal.3 Centuries later, Galen described ophthalmic excisional and lamellar surgery using keratomes.4

José Ignacio Barraquer, MD, FACS, FRCOphth, was the first to describe the original device used for lamellar surgery, which is now known as in situ keratomileusis, in 1948.5-8 The word keratomileusis literally means sculpting of the cornea. Barraquer’s first procedures involved freezing a disc of anterior corneal tissue before removing stromal tissue frozen onto a lathe. Over the years, the procedure evolved, first through the Barraquer-Krumeich–Swinger nonfreeze technique in which tissue was removed from the underside of the disc by a second pass of the microkeratome.

In a later development, the microkeratome was passed a second time directly on the stromal bed. The procedure became known as automated lamellar keratoplasty after the invention of an automated microkeratome and was further refined. First, the disc was replaced with sutures. Later, the microkeratome was halted before the end of the pass to create a hinged flap, as first demonstrated in 1989.9-15

The advent of the excimer laser led to its combination with a flap, creating LASIK, as described by the Gholam A. Peyman, MD, patent.16 A detailed history of LASIK was written by Reinstein et al.17 Early mechanical microkeratomes had large standard deviations in flap thickness, but newer designs tightened those gaps. As the predictability and safety of microkeratomes improved, so did visual outcomes.

The development of femtosecond lasers for lamellar surgery made truly planar flaps possible. Complications associated with the mechanical microkeratome disappeared but were replaced with new issues related to the femtosecond laser.18 Technical advances have minimized these issues, and modern LASIK is one of the safest procedures performed in any field of surgery.19-22


Mechanical. Mechanical keratomes can be either translational or rotational.

  • Translational. Translational mechanical microkeratomes use an oscillating blade that docks to a suction ring that induces high IOP. A lamellar corneal flap of 100 to 120 µm on average is created. These microkeratomes traditionally create nasal hinges. Single-use or disposable devices exist.
  • Rotational. Rotational mechanical microkeratomes use a rotating or oscillating blade that docks to a suction ring that induces high IOP. A lamellar corneal flap of 100 to 120 µm is created. A nasal or superior hinge can be created, depending on the device. Disposable systems are also available for single use.

Femtosecond laser. This infrared laser operates at a wavelength of 1,053 nm. It uses photodisruption to create ultrashort pulses of 10-15 of a second, which create microcavitation bubbles of 2 to 3 µm. Thousands of these bubbles combine in a raster pattern to create a lamellar flap beneath the epithelium in the stromal bed. The sidecut is created at the end by stacking the bubbles. Femtosecond lasers are used for LASIK primarily but also for other corneal procedures, such as lamellar corneal surgery, corneal transplantation, and cataract surgery.


The latest microkeratomes and femtosecond lasers can create flaps efficiently and with fewer complications. The increasing speed of lasers has reduced the time required to create flaps—a significant difference between this technology and microkeratomes. Further advances should produce better results and reduce the need for enhancements.23-29

1. Bryan CP. The Papyrus Ebers: Translated from the German Version. D. Appleton and Company; 1931.

2. Andersen SR. The eye and its diseases in Ancient Egypt. Acta Ophthalmologica. 1997;75:338-344.

3. Kansupada KB, Sassani JW. Sushruta: The father of Indian surgery and ophthalmology. Doc Ophthalmol. 1997;93:159-167.

4. Sarton G. Galen of Pergamon. University of Kansas Press; 1954.

5. Barraquer JI. Queratoplastia refractiva. Estudios e Informaciones Oftalmológicas. 1949;10:2-21.

6. Barraquer JI. Method for cutting lamellar grafts in frozen cornea. New orientation for refractive surgery. Arch Soc Am Oftal Optom. 1958;1:271-286.

7. Barraquer JI. Autokeratoplasty with optical carving for the correction of myopia (keratomileusis). Article in Spanish. An Med Espec. 1965;51(1):66-82.

8. Barraquer JI. Conducta de la còrnea frente a los cambios de espesor. Arch Soc Am Oftal Optom. 1964;5:81-87.

9. Krwawicz T. Lamellar corneal stromectomy for the operative treatment of myopia. A preliminary report. Am J Ophthalmol. 1964;57:828-833.

10. Krwawicz T. Further results of partial lamellar resection of the corneal stroma for correction of high-grade myopia (stromectomia corneae lamellaris). Article in Polish. Klin Oczna. 1965;35:13-17.

11. Pureskin NP. Weakening ocular refraction by means of partial stromectomy of cornea under experimental conditions. Article in Russian. Vestn Oftalmol. 1967;80(1):19-24.

12. Swinger CA, Krumeich JH, Cassiday D. Planar lamellar refractive keratoplasty. J Refract Surg. 1986;2(1):17-24.

13. Krumeich JH, Swinger CA. Nonfreeze epikeratophakia for the correction of myopia. Am J Ophthalmol. 1987;103(3 pt 2):397-403.

14. Ruiz LA, Rowsey JJ. In situ keratomileusis. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 1988;29(suppl):392.

15. Ruiz L, Rowsey JJ. In-situ keratomileusis with a hinged flap. Presented at: American Congress of Ophthalmic Surgery Dulaney Winter Meeting; February 21-24, 1989; Aspen, Colorado.

16. Peyman GA, inventor; Method for modifying corneal curvature. US Patent No. 4,840,175. June 20, 1989.

17. Slade SG, Updegraff SA. Complications of automated lamellar keratectomy [letter]. Arch Ophthalmol. 1995;113:1092.

18. Reinstein DZ, Archer TJ, Gobbe M. The history of LASIK. J Refract Surg. 2012;28(4):291-298.

19. Dos Santos AM, Torricelli AA, Marino GK, et al. Femtosecond laser-assisted LASIK flap complications. J Refract Surg. 2016;32(1):52-59.

20. Stonecipher KG, Rowsey JJ, Fowler WC, Parmley VC, Terry MA, Draeger J. Refractive corneal surgery with the Draeger rotor keratome in the cadaver eye. J Refract Corneal Surg. 1994;10(4):433-437.

21. Pallikaris IG, Papatzanaki ME, Stathi EZ, Frenschock O, Georgiadis A. Laser in situ keratomileusis. Lasers Surg Med. 1990;10(5):463-468.

22. Ibrahim O, Waring GO III, Salah T, et al. Automated in situ keratomileusis for myopia. J Refract Surg. 1995;11:431-441.

23. Haimovici R, Culbertson W. Optical lamellar keratoplasty using the Barraquer microkeratome. J Refract Surg. 1991;7:42-45.

24. Barraquer JI. The history and evolution of keratomileusis. Int Ophthalmol Clin. 1996;36:1-7.

25. Kezirian GK, Stonecipher KG. Comparison of the Intralase femtosecond laser and mechanical keratomes for LASIK. J Cataract Refract Surg. 2004;30(4):803-810.

26. Stonecipher KG, Ignacio TI, Stonecipher MN. Advances in refractive surgery: microkeratome and femtosecond laser flap creation in relation to safety, efficacy, predictability, and biomechanical stability. Curr Med Res Opin. 2006;22(12):2375-2382.

27. Zhang J, Zhang SS, Yu Q, Wu JX, Lian JC. Comparison of corneal flap thickness using a FS200 femtosecond laser and a Moria SBK microkeratome. Int J Ophthalmol. 2014;7(2):273-277.

28. Stonecipher KG, Meyer JJ, Stonecipher MN, Felsted DJ. Laser in situ keratomileusis flap complications and complication rates using mechanical microkeratomes versus femtosecond laser: retrospective review. Med Res Arch. 2015;2(3). doi:10.18103/mra.v2i3.353

29. Shah RM. History and Results; Indications and contraindications of SMILE, compared with LASIK. Asia Pac J Ophthalmol (Phila). 2019;8(5):371-376.

J. James Rowsey, MD
  • Cornea and refractive surgeon, St. Michael’s Eye & Laser Institute, Largo, Florida
  • jrowsey@verizon.net
  • Financial disclosure: None acknowledged
Karl G. Stonecipher, MD
  • Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • Clinical Adjunct Professor of Ophthalmology, Tulane University, New Orleans
  • Director of Refractive Surgery, Laser Defined Vision, Greensboro, North Carolina
  • Member, CRST Executive Advisory Board
  • stonenc@gmail.com
  • Financial disclosure: None acknowledged