Cataracts are one of the most common eye-related conditions. In addition to being the leading cause of blindness, around half of Americans over the age of 80 have cataracts or have had surgery to remove cataracts.
While cataracts are common, they’re treatable. June is cataract awareness month, and we celebrate it by informing patients about the risks, symptoms, and treatment options available.
A cataract is the clouding of the normally clear lens in the eye. In a healthy eye, the lens bends and refracts light, allowing us to see clearly. If someone develops a cataract, this normally clear lens begins to cloud.
To imagine this, think of a car windshield covered in dust or light snow. Like the dusty windshield, a cloudy lens prevents light from getting in and makes it difficult to see.
As the lens continues to cloud, patients may experience other issues such as blurry vision, trouble reading, or in serious cases, vision loss.
Cataracts develop slowly and may not always be apparent to the patient. In fact, patients may not realize they have a cataract until receiving a diagnosis or experiencing symptoms that affect their vision. This is one of the reasons why it is important to talk about the issue during cataract awareness month.
If a patient has a visually significant cataract that affects their day-to-day activities, they should consult their ophthalmologist. The eye doctor will be able to recommend a range of safe treatments, such as a change in eyeglass prescription or surgery.
Cataracts develop over time and become more common with age. Normal proteins in the eye begin to break down around 40. By age 60, most people will have some clouding in their lenses.
In the early stages, patients may not be aware they have a cataract. Vision problems and other symptoms can take years to develop after the cataract forms. If the cataract remains untreated, patients may experience:
Double or ghosted vision in the eye with the cataract
Sensitivity to light
Difficulty seeing at night
Seeing bright colors as yellow or faded
Frequent changes in eyeglass or contact lens prescription
Seeing halos around light
One of the goals of cataract awareness month is to encourage patients to visit their ophthalmologist to receive a diagnosis before symptoms become severe.
If a patient is over 60 years old or is experiencing cataract symptoms, they should go to the eye doctor for a check-up. To diagnose a cataract, the ophthalmologist will look at the patient’s medical history and conduct a comprehensive eye exam.
During the exam, the eye doctor dilates the patient's eye. This widens the pupil, allowing the doctor to clearly look inside the eye. With the pupil open, the doctor can examine the back of the patient’s eye to determine if they have a cataract and how much of their vision is blocked.
There are a variety of treatments for cataracts. The treatment an ophthalmologist recommends depends on the severity of the cataract and when they spot it.
Typically, early cataracts don’t require surgery. Patients can alleviate many of their symptoms with a change in glasses prescription.
Doctors may also recommend lifestyle changes that help manage symptoms. Some we recommend for cataract awareness month are:
Protect eyes from UV rays with a hat and sunglasses
Quit smoking if it’s a habit
Reduce alcohol intake
Use brighter lights for reading
Take care of health problems, especially those related to diabetes
For more severe cataracts that cannot be managed by lifestyle changes or a new glasses prescription, an eye doctor may recommend cataract surgery.
Cataract surgery is typically recommended for patients with severe cataracts that disrupt day-to-day activities. Eye doctors may also suggest surgery if a cataract gets in the way of other eye treatments and diagnoses — particularly ones where the doctor needs to see the back of a patient’s eye.
During surgery, the eye doctor will remove the patient's cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial or intraocular lens (IOL). This clear lens allows the patient to enjoy clearer, crisper vision.
Cataract surgery is considered safe and effective, with a success rate of around 98%.
There are multiple options for cataract surgery. The two we’d like to highlight for cataract awareness month are:
This is the most widely performed cataract surgery. During the procedure, the eye doctor cuts a small opening in the eye to operate on the clouded lens. The doctor then uses ultrasound to remove the cataract and insert a new artificial lens.
This is a newer laser-assisted cataract surgery. It offers a more precise way to remove the cataract. Some consider it more advanced, but it is newer and more expensive than traditional phaco surgery.
During cataract surgery, patients will have a number of intraocular lenses to choose from. Different lens types may suit different patients depending on their conditions, budget, and the results they hope to achieve.
Some of the most common are:
Monofocal: Standard single-focus lens implant. It will cover only one vision range (distance, intermediate, or near). The cost is covered by insurance.
Multifocal: High-performance upgrades that correct for multiple visual ranges, giving patients freedom from glasses at all ranges. These are not covered by insurance.
Toric: Special lenses that correct astigmatism. Some monofocal and all multifocal lenses have toric versions available. Toric lenses are not covered by insurance.
Recovery from cataract surgery is safe and swift. Still, there are things patients should be aware of. Get the details on exactly what to expect post surgery.
Learn the difference between refractive lens exchange and cataract surgery, and which one is recommended for different patients.