Cataract surgery is a procedure used to remove the natural lens in the eye when it becomes clouded, and replace it with an artificial lens in order to restore clear vision. Cataract surgery is indicated when the cataract impairs vision to the extent that it interferes with normal daily activities. Cataract extraction is one of the most frequently performed surgical procedures in the world.
A cataract is a cloudy or opaque area in the normally clear lens of the eye. Depending upon its size and location, it can interfere with normal vision. Most cataracts develop in persons over age 55, but they occasionally occur in infants and young children. Usually cataracts develop in both eyes, but one eye may have somewhat worse vision than the other. There is no way to prevent the development of cataracts and currently the only way to treat them is to surgically remove the natural lens in the eye.
Early symptoms of cataracts include blurred vision, glare, and difficulty reading. Cataracts generally progress very slowly, and surgery may not be needed for many years, if at all. In some cases, periodic changes in your eyeglass or contact lens prescription may be all that is needed to continue to provide you with good vision.
Waiting to have surgery usually won’t harm your eyes. The decision to proceed with surgery is primarily based on the amount of difficulty you have performing your usual daily activities.
When considering cataract surgery, you need to ask yourself:
- Can I see to perform my job and drive safely?
- Do I have problems reading or watching television?
- Do vision problems affect my level of independence?
When your vision has decreased to the point where you can no longer easily and safely perform daily activities, then it’s time to consider cataract surgery.
Your doctor of optometry can assist you in making that decision. He or she is most familiar with your current and past eye health and vision history and can answer specific questions you may have about cataract surgery. Following a comprehensive eye examination, he or she can advise you on your current level of visual abilities and the potential benefits and risks of cataract surgery.
If you decide to proceed with cataract surgery, your optometrist can assist you in locating a qualified cataract surgeon in your area. In many cases, he or she will also be available to provide the follow-up care you will need as your eyes heal following surgery.
How is cataract surgery performed?
Cataract surgery involves removing the natural lens of the eye and replacing it with an artificial lens (intraocular lens implant or IOL). The plastic artificial lens is permanent, requires no care, and can significantly improve vision. Newer artificial lens options include those that simulate the natural focusing ability of a young lens, allowing for distance and some near vision, as well.
Cataract surgery is typically an outpatient procedure that takes less than an hour. Most patients are awake during the procedure and need only local anesthesia. If you need to have cataracts in both eyes removed, the procedure is typically scheduled for two separate surgeries. This allows time for the first eye to heal before the second eye surgery takes place.
Two approaches to cataract surgery are currently used:
Small incision cataract surgery
involves making an incision in the side of the cornea, the clear outer covering of the eye, and inserting a tiny probe into the eye. The probe emits ultrasound waves that soften and break-up the lens into little pieces so it can be removed by suction. This process is called phacoemulsification.
During this procedure, the surgeon removes the cataract but leaves most of the thin outer membrane of the lens, called the lens capsule, in place. Since the incision made for this procedure is so small, sutures are generally not needed to close the opening.
requires a somewhat larger incision in the cornea to allow the lens core to be removed in one piece. This approach may be used if your cataract has advanced to the point where phacoemulsification can't break up the clouded lens. Through this incision your surgeon opens the lens capsule, removes the central portion of the lens and leaves the capsule in place.
Once the natural lens has been removed, it is generally replaced by a clear plastic lens called an intraocular lens (IOL). The IOL is placed in the lens capsule that was left in the eye. The artificial lens has the appropriate lens power to focus light onto back of the eye and improve vision. For situations where implanting an IOL is not possible because of other eye problems, contact lenses and in some cases eyeglasses may be an option to provide the needed vision correction.
Intraocular lenses come in two basic forms: monofocal and multifocal lenses.
are the most commonly implanted lenses. They have the same power in all areas of the lens. They can have a fixed focus or allow for changes in focus.
- Fixed Focus Monofocal IOLs can provide excellent distance vision. However, since these lenses have a fixed focus set for distance vision, reading glasses need to be used for good near vision.
- Accommodating Monofocal IOLs are a relatively new lens option that can be used when both good distance and near vision are desired without the use of eyeglasses or contact lenses. These lenses also have a single focusing power. However, they can shift from focusing on distance objects to focusing on near ones by physically moving inside the eye in response to the focusing action of the muscles of the eye.
are like bifocal eyeglasses. Several areas of the lens have different powers that allow individuals to see clearly at distance, intermediate, and near. However, these multifocal lenses are not suitable for everyone. They may cause more problems with night vision and glare than monofocal IOL lenses for some individuals.
The type of intraocular lens implant that would work best for you will depend on your current vision status and your vision and lifestyle needs. Your optometrist and cataract surgeon can advise you on the type of lens implant that would be most suitable.
What are the risks of cataract surgery?
While cataract surgery is one of the safest surgical procedures available and has a high rate of success, problems can arise. Complications after cataract surgery are relatively rare, and most can be treated successfully. However, if they occur, they may result in significant vision loss. They include:
- inflammation or infection of the eye
- bleeding in the eye
- swelling of the cornea
- detachment of the retinaincreased pressure inside the eye
- dislocation of the implanted lens
- accumulation of fluid in the retina
- drooping eyelid
The risk of these complications is greater for people who have other eye diseases or serious medical problems.
In addition, the presence of cataracts can mask additional eye problems, such as retinal damage, that neither the doctor nor patient is aware of prior to surgery. Since such conditions will continue to impair sight after cataract removal, the eventual outcome of cataract surgery may depend on the treatment of these other problems.
Cataract surgery can also contribute to the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
, a degeneration of the central part of the retina. Therefore, AMD patients with cataracts must weigh the potential risks of the possible loss of central vision against the visual improvement provided by cataract surgery.
What happens after cataract surgery?
Normally you can go home on the same day of your surgery, but you won't be able to drive. It's a good idea to make sure you have necessary help because your doctor may limit activities such as bending and lifting for a few days.
It is normal to feel itching and some mild discomfort after cataract surgery. You may also have temporary fluid discharge from your eye and be sensitive to light. Avoid rubbing or pressing on your eye. Try not to bend from the waist to pick up objects on the floor. Do not lift any heavy objects. You can walk, climb stairs, and do light household chores.
Your doctor may prescribe medications to prevent infection and control eye pressure. After a couple of days, all discomfort should disappear. Often, complete healing occurs within about eight weeks.
During this healing time your eye health and vision need to be monitored. In many cases, your optometrist will co-manage your follow-up care with the doctor who did the cataract surgery. Typical follow-up visits would occur at: 1 day, 1 week, 3-4 weeks, 6-8 weeks and 6 months after surgery.
Once your eyes have healed, your optometrist can evaluate your need for eyeglasses or contact lenses to provide optimum vision. Most people need to wear glasses after cataract surgery, at least for some activities.
If you did not receive an accommodating or multifocal intraocular lens implant, you will also need a lens prescription for reading and close work. This may be in the form of reading glasses, bifocal or progressive addition lenses (no-line multifocals) or monovision or bifocal contact lenses.
Although your vision may be adequately corrected following cataract surgery, you will still need to have regular eye and vision exams to monitor your eye health and vision. If cataract surgery was only performed on one eye, your optometrist can continue to monitor the other eye and assist you in making arrangements for surgery on the second eye, when needed.
What is a secondary cataract?
You may have heard about a condition called “secondary cataract” or “after-cataract”. This occurs when the lens capsule, the membrane that wasn't removed during surgery and supports the lens implant, becomes cloudy and impairs your vision. Another term for this condition is posterior capsular opacification (PCO).
A secondary cataract can develop months or years after cataract surgery. You may have the sensation that the cataract is returning because your vision is becoming blurry again. The gradual clouding of vision is the result of cell growth on the back of the capsule.
There is no way to know who may develop clouding of the lens capsule after cataract surgery. However, up to 50% of cataract surgery patients experience this problem.
Treatment for a secondary cataract is fairly simple. It involves a technique called YAG laser capsulotomy, in which a laser beam is used to make a small opening in the clouded capsule to allow light through. It is a short, painless outpatient procedure that usually takes less than five minutes. Afterward, you typically stay in the doctor's office for about an hour to make sure your eye pressure doesn't increase. Generally, most patients will immediately experience improved vision, while some experience gradual improvement over several days.