Sometime after age 50, most of us are likely to hear our eye doctor say, “You have cataracts.”
A cataract is a clouding of the lens inside the eye, causing vision loss that cannot be corrected with glasses, contact lenses or corneal refractive surgery like LASIK.
As frightening as cataracts might sound, modern cataract surgery usually can restore vision lost to cataracts — and often can reduce your dependence on eyeglasses as well.
blurred vision, clouded vision, light sensitivity, dim colors
- Procedure time: about 15 minutes
- Typical results: long-lasting clear vision (at all distances with presbyopia-correcting IOLs)
- Recovery time: about a month
Most cataracts are associated with the aging process and are common among older Americans. In fact, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI), 68.3 percent of Americans 80 and older had cataracts in 2010.
And the prevalence of cataracts in the U.S. is expected to grow significantly in the years ahead, due in part to the aging of the population. In 2010, roughly 24.4 million Americans had cataracts, and that number is projected to grow to 50.2 million by the year 2050, according to NEI.
Thankfully, modern cataract surgery is one of the safest and most effective surgical procedures performed today.
More than 3 million cataract surgeries are performed in the United States every year, with the vast majority of these procedures produce excellent visual outcomes.
Cataract Surgery Basics
In cataract surgery, the lens inside your eye that has become cloudy is removed and replaced with an artificial lens (called an intraocular lens, or IOL) to restore clear vision.
The procedure typically is performed on an outpatient basis and does not require an overnight stay in a hospital or other care facility.
Most modern cataract procedures involve the use of a high-frequency ultrasound device that breaks up the cloudy lens into small pieces, which are then gently removed from the eye with suction.
This procedure, called phacoemulsification or “phaco,” can be performed with smaller incisions than previous surgical techniques for cataract removal, promoting faster healing and reducing the risk of cataract surgery complications, such as a retinal detachment.
After all remnants of the cloudy lens have been removed from your eye, the cataract surgeon inserts a clear intraocular lens, positioning it securely behind the iris and pupil, in the same location your natural lens occupied. (In special cases, an IOL might be placed in front of the iris and pupil, but this is less common.)
The surgeon then completes the cataract removal and IOL implantation procedure by closing the incision in your eye (a stitch may or may not be needed), and a protective shield is placed over the eye to keep it safe in the early stages of your cataract surgery recovery.
Preparing For Cataract Surgery And Choosing An IOL
Prior to cataract surgery, your optometrist and/or ophthalmologist will perform a comprehensive eye exam to check the overall health of your eyes, evaluate whether there are reasons why you should not have surgery and identify any risk factors you might have.
A refraction also will be performed to accurately determine the amount of nearsightedness, farsightedness and/or astigmatism you have prior to surgery. Additional measurements of your eyes will be taken to determine the curvature of your cornea and the length of your eye.
These measurements are essential to help your cataract surgeon select the proper power of the intraocular lens and give you the best vision possible after surgery.
Today you have many types of IOLs to choose from for your cataract surgery, depending on your specific needs. In addition to IOLs that correct nearsightedness and farsightedness, there are now toric.
IOLs that correct astigmatism as well.
If you don’t mind wearing glasses after cataract surgery, a monofocal lens implant usually is used. Often, only part-time use of reading glasses is needed after cataract surgery with
Another option is to choose one of a variety of advanced presbyopia-correcting IOLs to improve your reading vision without sacrificing your distance vision. Presbyopia-correcting IOLs include accommodating IOLs and multifocal IOLs; both types are designed to provide a greater range of vision after cataract surgery than conventional
Be aware that not everyone is a good candidate for these premium IOLs, and choosing a presbyopia-correcting IOL will increase the out-of-pocket cost of your cataract surgery, since the added cost of these advanced lens implants is not covered by Medicare or other insurance plans.
Prior to cataract surgery, in addition to discussing the different types of IOLs, you will be advised about what to expect before, during and after your procedure. This information — which may be presented orally, in writing, via a video presentation or a combination of all three — is meant to help you make an informed decision about whether to proceed with surgery.
If you have any questions or concerns about cataract surgery, be sure to discuss them with your eye doctor and cataract surgeon prior to signing “informed consent” documents authorizing surgery.
Also, discuss with your eye doctor all medications you are taking, including non-prescription (“over-the-counter”) formulations and nutritional supplements. Some medications and supplements can increase your risk of cataract surgery complications and might need to be discontinued prior to surgery. Ask your doctor for details.
Cataract Surgery Recovery
An uncomplicated cataract surgery typically lasts only about 15 minutes. But expect to be at the surgical center for 90 minutes or longer, because extra time is needed to prepare you for surgery (dilating your pupil; administering preoperative medication) and for a brief post-operative evaluation and instructions about your cataract surgery recovery before you leave.
You must have someone drive you home after cataract surgery; do not attempt to drive until you have visited your eye doctor the day after surgery and he or she tests your vision and confirms that you are safe to drive.
You will be prescribed medicated eye drops to use several times each day for a few weeks after cataract surgery. You also must wear your protective eye shield while sleeping or napping for about a week after surgery. To protect your eyes from sunlight and other bright light as your eye recovers, you will be given a special pair of post-operative sunglasses.
Also, many centers require someone to be with you after cataract surgery if you received anesthesia. Be sure to ask about this requirement prior to your cataract procedure so you are prepared for surgery day.
While your eye heals, you might experience some eye redness and blurred vision during the first few days or even weeks following the procedure.
During at least the first week of your recovery, it is essential that you avoid:
- Strenuous activity and heavy lifting (nothing over 25 pounds).
- Bending, exercising and similar activities that might stress your eye while it is healing.
- Water that might splash into your eye and cause infection. Keep your eye closed while showering or bathing. Also, avoid swimming or hot tubs for at least two weeks.
- Any activity that would expose your healing eye to dust, grime or other infection-causing contaminants.
Your cataract surgeon may give you other instructions and recommendations for your cataract surgery recovery, depending on your specific needs and the outcome of your procedure. If you have any questions at any time after cataract surgery, call your eye doctor for advice.
If you need cataract surgery in both eyes, your surgeon typically will prefer that you wait one to three weeks between procedures, so your first eye has healed sufficiently and you have good vision in that eye before the second surgery is performed.
Eyeglasses After Cataract Surgery
Unless you choose presbyopia-correcting IOLs, it’s likely you will need reading glasses after cataract surgery to see near objects clearly. Even people who choose these premium IOLs often find reading glasses are helpful for certain near tasks and seeing very small print.
In the event you have some mild refractive errors present after surgery (this is common), you may want to wear eyeglasses with progressive lenses full-time after your surgery to attain the best possible vision at all distances.
Even people who have an excellent visual outcome and can see well without glasses after cataract surgery often choose to wear eyeglasses full-time after their procedure to protect their eyes and because they feel more like themselves wearing eyeglasses after surgery if they have worn glasses most of their life.If you choose to wear glasses after cataract surgery, lenses with anti-reflective coating and photochromic lenses are highly recommended for the best vision, comfort and appearance. Ask your eye care professional for details and to demonstrate these lenses.