Cataract surgery is a procedure performed to remove a cloudy lens from the eye; usually an intraocular lens is implanted at the same time.
The purpose of cataract surgery is to restore clear vision. It is indicated when cloudy vision due to cataracts has progressed to such an extent that it interferes with normal daily activities.
Cataract surgery is not performed on both eyes at once. To avoid risking blindness in both eyes in the event of infection or other catastrophe, the first eye is allowed to heal before the cataract is removed from the second eye.
The presence of cataracts can mask additional eye problems, such as retinal damage, that neither doctors nor patients are aware of prior to surgery. Since such conditions will continue to impair sight after cataract removal if they are not identified and treated, the eventual outcome of cataract surgery will depend on the out-come of other problems.
In 1997 and 1998, evidence that cataract surgery can contribute to the progression of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) was published. ARMD is the degeneration of the central part of the retina. Accordingly, ARMD patients with cataracts must weigh the risks of the loss of central vision, within four or five years, against short-term improvement. When an ARMD patient chooses cataract surgery, the surgeon should shield the retina against bright light to protect it from possible light-induced damage during surgery and install an intraocular lens capable of absorbing ultraviolet and blue light, which seem to do the most damage.
There are two types of cataract surgery: intracapsular and extracapsular. Intracapsular surgery is the removal of both the lens and the thin capsule that surround them. This type of surgery was common before 1980, but has since been displaced by extracapsular surgery. Removal of the capsule requires a large incision and doesn't allow comfortable intraocular lens implantation. Thus, people who undergo intracapsular cataract surgery have long recovery periods and have to wear very thick glasses.
Extracapsular cataract surgery is the removal of the lens where the capsule is left in place. Each year in the United States, over a million cataracts are removed this way.
There are two methods for extracapsular cataract surgery. The usual technique is phacoemulsification. A tiny incision (about 0.12 in or 3 mm long) is made next to the cornea (the eye's outer covering), and an ultrasonic probe is used to break the cataract into minute pieces, which are then removed by suction. When the lens is too hard to be emulsified ultrasonically, the surgeon will use a different extracapsular technique requiring a larger incision. An incision about 0.37 in (9 mm) long is made, and the whole lens (without its capsule) is removed through the incision. Both kinds of extracapsular extraction leave the back of the capsule intact, so a silicone or plastic intraocular lens can be stably implanted in about the same location as the original lens.
The surgery takes about 30–60 minutes per eye.
Patients must have a pre-operation eye examination, which will include ultrasound analysis to make sure the
retina (the innermost layer of the eye, containing the light receptors) is intact and also to measure eye curvature so that a lens with the proper correction can be implanted. The patient will also have a pre-operative physical examination. In addition, patients start a course of antibiotic eye drops or ointment the day before surgery.
Proper post-operative care is especially important after cataract surgery. Patients will need someone to drive them home after the surgery and should not bend over or do anything strenuous for about two weeks. They should refrain from rubbing the eye, should wear glasses to protect their eye, and should wear a shield while sleeping so the eye won't be rubbed or bumped accidentally. The patient will usually continue their antibiotic for two to three weeks and will also take anti-inflammatory medication for about the same length of time. If the patient experiences inflammation, redness, or pain, they should seek immediate medical treatment to avoid serious complications.
Cataract surgery itself is quite safe; over 90% of the time, there are no complications. Possible complications include intraocular infection (endophthalmitis), central retinal inflammation (macular edema), post-operative glaucoma, retinal detachment, bleeding under the retina (choroidal hemorrhage), and tiny lens fragments in the back (vitreous) cavity of the eye, all of which can lead to loss of sight.
Ordinarily, patients experience improved visual acuity and improved perception of the vividness of colors, leading to increased abilities in many activities, including reading, needlework, driving, golf, and tennis, for example. In addition, sometimes implanted corrective lenses eliminate the need for eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Salmans, Sandra. Your Eyes: Questions You Have. Answers You Need. Allentown, PA: People's Medical Society, 1996.
Shulman, Julius. Cataracts. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
American Academy of Ophthalmology. 655 Beach Street, P.O. Box 7424, San Francisco, CA 94120-7424. <http://www.eyenet.org>.
American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery. 4000 Legato Road, Suite 850, Fairfax, VA 22033-4055. (703) 591-2220. <http://www.ascrs.org>.
"Cataract in Adults: A Patient's Guide." National Library of Medicine Page. <http://text.nlm.nih.gov>.
"Patient Information." Digital Journal of Ophthalmology. <http://www.djo.harvard.edu/meei/PI/PIhome.html>.
Lorraine Lica, PhD
Cataract—Progressive opacity or clouding of an eye lens, which obstructs the passage of light to the retina.
Cornea—Clear outer covering of the front of the eye.
Intraocular lens—Lens made of silicone or plastic placed within the eye; can be corrective.
Retina—Innermost layer at the back of the eye, which contains light receptors, the rods and cones.