Cataracts: What You Need to Know

When you look at a baby's eyes, the whites are bright, the color is vivid and the corneas are crystal clear. Look into the eyes of an older adult and you'll see the effect of time. But it's not just the outward appearance that has changed. For millions of people, cataracts change the way they see the world. Cloudy or blurred vision, faded colors, problems with glare, and poor night vision are all symptoms.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology says cataracts effect nearly 22 million Americans age 40 and older. By age 80, more than half of all Americans have cataracts. A cataract is the clouding of one or both lenses in the eyes and is usually caused by aging, though it's not the only cause.

A normal lens is the clear part of the eye that focuses light on the retina where it's changed into nerve signals, which are sent to the brain so we can process images as pictures. When the lens is cloudy, it lets in less light and makes vision blurry.

Though most of the time, cataracts develop due to age, the National Eye Institute says there are other types of cataracts too:

  • Secondary cataracts form after surgery for other eye problems, such as glaucoma, or as a result of other health problems, such as diabetes. They can also be linked to steroid use.
  • Traumatic cataracts can develop after an eye injury, sometimes years later.
  • Congenital cataract. Some babies are born with cataracts or develop them in childhood, often in both eyes. These cataracts may be so small that they do not affect vision. If they do, the lenses may need to be removed and replaced with artificial lenses.
  • Radiation cataract. Cataracts can develop after exposure to some types of radiation.

How are Cataracts Treated?

In a cataract's earliest stages, vision can sometimes be improved with a new eyeglass prescription, better lighting, an anti-glare computer screen, anti-glare sunglasses or magnifying lenses. If these don't help, however, and vision loss is affecting your ability to work, live independently, enjoy your normal activities, or if it is getting in the way of your doctor's ability to treat other eye problems, then it's time for surgery.

There are two types of cataract surgery:

  1. Phacoemulsification is the most common cataract surgery. A tiny incision is made in the cornea (clear dome-shaped surface that covers the eye) and a tiny probe is inserted into the eye to emit ultrasound waves that soften and break up the lens. Then, the lens is removed, an artificial replacement lens is inserted and the cornea is replaced.
  2. Extracapsular surgery requires a longer corneal incision so the cloudy core of the lens can be removed in one piece and the rest of the lens can be removed by suction. A new artificial lens is put in its place.

Artificial lenses are easily accepted as part of the normal eye for most patients who have cataract surgery. They don't require any more after-care than a natural lens.

Most patients respond very well to cataract surgery and 90 percent of people who undergo the procedure report their vision improves. It's usually done as a day surgery procedure, which means you return home within hours of the operation. As with any surgery, there are some risks for infection and bleeding and rarely, cataract surgery slightly increases risks for retinal detachment. Most people will report though that this safe, simple surgery not only gave them back their vision, but also adds a certain twinkle to their eye.

Dennis Bley, DO, reviewed this article.