Cataract Surgery

Written by Brian Krans | Published on August 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Cataract Surgery?

Cataract surgery is used to remove the damaged lens of the eye and replace it with a functional (typically artificial) lens. Cataract surgery is a routine and safe procedure.

The lens of the eye helps refract light and focus the images you see. It changes shape to help you distinguish nearby and faraway objects, similar to the lens of a camera. Cataracts, which typically occur in older adults, cause a person’s vision to become cloudy and blurry. Late stage cataracts make the affected person feel like they’re looking through an unfocused camera lens.

Why Cataract Surgery Is Performed

If cataracts are preventing you from driving, reading, or doing other daily activities, you may want to talk to your doctor about cataract surgery. Cataract surgery is used to correct the effects of cataracts by replacing the lens of your eye. This can sharpen images and reduce the glare from lights.

However, delaying cataract surgery won’t harm your eye. Your vision will remain impaired, but if you can see well enough to perform your daily functions, you can wait to have your cataract repaired. In other words, there are no long-term complications other than your eyesight getting worse.

The Complications of Cataract Surgery

While cataract surgery is considered safe and complications are rare, it does carry certain risks. These include:

  • bleeding
  • glaucoma (a condition that, if untreated, damages the optic nerve that carries information from your eye to your brain)
  • infection
  • inflammation
  • retinal detachment
  • swelling

On rare occasions, the surgeon may not be able to remove your entire lens. If this is the case, surgery to remove the rest of the lens will be scheduled for a later date.

Some people who undergo cataract surgery develop a condition known as a secondary cataract. This occurs when the back of the lens capsule—the part of your eye that holds the lens—becomes cloudy.

A secondary cataract can be corrected with a five-minute outpatient treatment called yttrium-aluminum-garnet laser capsulotomy. During this procedure, your doctor will use a laser to make a small opening in the lens capsule.

How to Prepare for Cataract Surgery

Before cataract surgery, you’ll undergo imaging of your eyes. This painless ultrasound helps your doctor better understand the shape and size of your eye.

During a pre-operative appointment, your eye surgeon—called an ophthalmologist—will give you complete instructions about how to prepare for your surgery. These could include:

  • stopping any medications your doctor tells you to, namely blood thinners
  • fasting for 12 hours before surgery
  • using antibiotic eye drops for a few days before surgery
  • making arrangements for after the surgery, including a ride home or help around the house

Prior to surgery, you’ll be given special eye drops to dilate your pupil. You’ll also be given local anesthesia to numb the area around your eye, as well as, a light sedative to relax you.

How Cataract Surgery Is Performed

Cataract surgery involves removing your faulty lens and replacing it with an artificial one. You’ll be awake during the procedure, but it will just feel like you’ve had a few too many cocktails. The procedure typically takes less than an hour to complete.

There are two ways to replace a faulty lens:

  • Small incision cataract surgery (phacoemulsification): This method uses ultrasound waves from a tiny probe. After making a small incision in your eye, your doctor uses the probe to break up the lens and suction it out. This is the most common type of cataract surgery.
  • Extracapsular surgery: This surgery involves making a larger incision so your surgeon can remove the cloudy center of the lens in one piece. The remaining portions of the lens are removed with suction.

After your damaged lens has been removed, an artificial lens made of acrylic, plastic, or silicone—called an intraocular lens (IOL)—is implanted in your eye. Your eye is then closed using stitches. These may either dissolve or need to be removed by your doctor at a later date.

As with glasses, there are many types of lenses. Some work like bifocals and some block harmful UV light. Your doctor will help you choose which lens best suits you. After the surgery, you won’t notice the new lens, but your vision will improve.

After Cataract Surgery

After surgery, you may be given a patch to wear to protect your eye while it heals. You may also be given prescription eye drops to help your eye heal and prevent infection.

You’ll be given complete care instructions, which may include:

  • wearing dark sunglasses when outside
  • ensuring that your hands are clean before touching your eyes
  • keeping your eyes clean of debris or soap
  • resting
  • not driving a car or operating heavy machinery until your eye has fully healed

Full recovery, without complications, can take up to two weeks.

If you experience bleeding from your eye, vision loss, auras, or other eye problems, contact your doctor immediately. These symptoms could indicate a serious complication, such as retinal detachment.

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