Sometime after age 50, most of us are likely to hear our eye doctor say, "You have cataracts."
Most cataracts are associated with the aging process and are common among older Americans. In fact, recent studies have estimated that 20.5 million Americans over age 40 (17 percent) have a cataract in one or both eyes, and more than 6 million in this age group (5 percent) already have had cataract surgery.*
Thankfully, modern cataract surgery is one of the safest and most effective surgical procedures performed in the United States, especially if you are healthy and don't have pre-existing eye conditions such as diabetic retinopathy or macular degeneration.
Cataract Surgery Basics
In cataract surgery, the lens inside your eye that has become cloudy from cataract formation 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 using only local anesthesia and does not require an overnight hospital stay.
Most modern cataract procedures involve the use of a high-frequency ultrasound probe 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 the cataract and 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.
Though phacoemulsification cataract surgery is already very safe, recently a number of femtosecond lasers similar to the lasers used to create the corneal flap in all-laser LASIK have been FDA-approved for use in cataract surgery and may make the procedure even more accurate and predictable.
Femtosecond lasers have gained approval for the following steps in cataract surgery, reducing the need for surgical blades and other hand-held tools: creating the corneal incision; removing the anterior capsule of the lens (required to allow the surgeon access to the lens with the phaco probe); and fragmenting the lens (so less ultrasonic energy is required to break up and remove the cataract).
Laser cataract surgery (or, more accurately, laser-assisted cataract surgery) is fairly new and significantly increases cataract surgery cost, primarily because the laser can cost from $300,000 to $500,000 for a surgeon to purchase. While studies have shown that lasers can improve accuracy during the procedure, they may not necessarily improve cataract surgery safety, recovery time and visual outcomes in every case.
For the latest information about laser cataract surgery, ask your eye doctor during your pre-operative eye exam and cataract surgery consultation.
Preparing for Cataract Surgery and Choosing an IOL
Prior to cataract surgery, your optometrist 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.
Phacoemulsification in cataract surgery involves insertion of a tiny, hollowed tip that uses high frequency (ultrasonic) vibrations to "break up" the eye's cloudy lens (cataract). The same tip is used to suction out the lens.
After the eye's natural lens is removed during cataract surgery, an artificial or intraocular lens is implanted to take its place.
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.
One way to deal with post-operative presbyopia and reduce your need for reading glasses after surgery is to have your cataract surgeon adjust the power of one of your IOLs (assuming you have cataract surgery performed in both eyes) to give you a monovision correction, similar to monovision with contact lenses.
Other options include accommodating IOLs and multifocal IOLs (also called presbyopia-correcting IOLs), which are designed to provide a greater range of vision after cataract surgery than conventional (monofocal) IOLs
Be aware that not everyone is a good candidate for these premium IOLs, and choosing one of these advanced lens implants will increase your cataract surgery cost.
Prior to surgery, in addition to discussing the different types of IOLs, you will be advised about what to expect before, during and after your cataract surgery. 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 for preparation 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.
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 a few weeks between procedures, so your first eye has healed sufficiently and you have good vision in that eye before the second surgery is performed.
About the Author: Gary Heiting, OD, is senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 25 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear industry. His special interests include contact lenses, nutrition and preventive vision care. Connect with Dr. Heiting via Google+.
*Prevalence of cataract and pseudophakia/aphakia among adults in the United States. Archives of Ophthalmology. April 2004.
[Page updated February 5, 2014]
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