Surgery is the most effective treatment for cataracts. Cataract surgery is typically a safe and effective procedure that permanently removes cataracts and improves your vision.

A cataract is a cloudiness of the lens of your eye, which is located behind the colored iris in your eye. A healthy lens is clear, allowing light to pass through it, which is transmitted onto the retina at the back of your eye. This information is then sent to your brain which interprets what you’re seeing.

Cataracts can cause blurry vision, can make colors look dull, and can also make it harder to see at night.

More than half of adults over the age of 80 in the United States have cataracts or have had cataract surgery. Surgery is the most effective way to treat cataracts.

This article takes a closer look at cataract surgery, what it involves, and questions to ask your doctor if cataract surgery is an option for you.

Surgery is the best treatment for cataracts. During cataract surgery, the ophthalmologist removes your natural cloudy lens and replaces it with a new artificial lens called an intraocular lens (IOL).

The new IOL is made from a synthetic material that won’t break down the way a natural lens does, yet it still allows light to easily pass through it.

Cataract surgery is safe and effective. About 90% of people have significant improvement in their vision after surgery.

Depending on the type of IOL you get, you may still need to wear glasses or contact lenses after you’ve had cataract surgery. There are many different IOL options, such as monofocal (focus only at one distance), multifocal (focus both near and far), as well as other types of lenses.

Take the time to talk with your ophthalmologist about the type of IOL that’s best for you, your needs, and your budget. It’s important to keep in mind that monofocal IOLs are typically the only IOL covered by Medicare and private health insurance. You will be responsible for any additional charges beyond what’s covered by your insurer.

What are the risks of cataract surgery?

Although cataract surgery is a very common and safe surgery, as with most medical procedures, there are some risks, such as:

Be sure to discuss the risks and benefits of cataract surgery with your ophthalmologist so you can weigh the pros and cons before making a decision. Also talk with your doctor about what to expect after cataract surgery, and how long you should wait before resuming your daily activities.

Cataract surgery is one of the most common surgeries done in the United States.

Cataract surgery takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Before the surgery begins, your ophthalmologist will put numbing drops in your eye so you won’t feel any pain. You’ll also be given medication to help you relax during your surgery.

Although you’ll likely be awake during the surgery, you’ll feel drowsy. You may be able to see some lights and movement, but you won’t be able to tell what your eye surgeon is doing. Because of the numbing drops, you won’t feel pain.

During the surgery, your ophthalmologist will use either a tiny blade or a laser to cut into your eye through the cornea — the outer layer of your eye. The cloudy lens then gets broken up with special instruments and removed. Your natural, cloudy lens is then replaced with a new artificial lens. Typically sutures are not needed to close the incision.

After the surgery is done, you’ll go to a recovery area for about 30 minutes. A healthcare professional will monitor you to make sure there are no problems after the surgery. If there are no complications, you’ll be able to go home.

What is the recovery like?

It can take about 4 to 6 weeks to fully recover from cataract surgery. However, you’ll likely notice an improvement in your vision within a couple of days.

Your ophthalmologist will give you specific instructions regarding how to take care of your eye. After having cataract surgery you’ll need to:

  • Use prescription eye drops for a few weeks to help your eye heal.
  • Wear an eye shield over your eye while you sleep — this prevents you from accidentally touching your eyes for the first few days after surgery.
  • Wear dark sunglasses outside.
  • See your ophthalmologist so they can check on your healing.

Your ophthalmologist will likely ask you to avoid the following for the first few weeks after cataract surgery:

  • rubbing or touching your eyes
  • getting soap or water in your eyes
  • swimming
  • lifting heavy objects
  • working out too vigorously
  • wearing contact lenses
  • flying, unless you get approval from your doctor

You’ll usually be able to resume most daily activities, including gentle exercise, within a few days of your surgery.

For the first few days after cataract surgery, it’s normal for your eyes to feel itchy, dry, or irritated. You may also have blurry vision for the first few days after surgery, and your eyes may be sensitive to light. These side effects are all normal and will usually go away as your eyes heal and adjust to the new lens that’s been implanted.

The cost of cataract surgery will depend on several factors, such as:

  • whether you have Medicare or private health insurance
  • the type of IOL you get
  • where the surgery is done
  • whether you need surgery on just one eye or both

Medicare and many insurance plans will typically cover most of the costs of standard cataract surgery if you get a monofocal IOL. A monofocal IOL has just one focusing distance. There are also multifocal IOLs, which allow you to focus on objects both near and far. These lenses are more expensive and typically aren’t covered by Medicare and private insurance.

According to Medicare data, the average total cost of cataract surgery (for a monofocal IOL) in an ambulatory surgical center is $1,606 per eye. Medicare will cover most of this cost. Your out-of-pocket cost will average around $320, but this could be higher depending on where you live and other factors.

The cost of cataract surgery will typically also be higher if:

  • you get a multifocal or extended depth of focus IOL
  • the surgery takes place in a hospital setting
  • newer surgical techniques are used, such as laser-assisted surgery
  • there are any complications during surgery
  • you have coexisting health conditions

If you don’t have private insurance or Medicare, your ophthalmologist’s office may offer payment plans. Ask about the different payment options they may offer.

Surgery is the only way to remove cataracts and restore vision that’s been affected by cataracts. However, some people may not want or be able to have surgery. If this is the case, you’ll want to talk with your ophthalmologist about vision aides that may help you see more clearly.

Some options may include:

  • changing the lighting in your home
  • using magnifiers for reading and other daily tasks
  • updating the prescription for your glasses
  • using anti-glare lenses for your glasses or sunglasses

You may also have the option to work with a therapist for low vision. They can help you live more safely with low vision and help you maintain some independence with daily tasks.

If you’re considering cataract surgery, you may have many questions. It’s a good idea to make a list of your questions and bring them with you when you meet with your ophthalmologist. Consider bringing a friend or family member along to the appointment if you’re concerned that you may not remember everything your doctor tells you.

Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • How soon do I need cataract surgery?
  • What will happen if I wait a little longer before I have cataract surgery?
  • How will I know when it’s time to seriously consider surgery?
  • What is the wait time for surgery once I decide to go ahead with it?
  • What type of artificial lens is best for me?
  • How long will the recovery be?
  • What do I need to avoid after cataract surgery and for how long?
  • What risks do I need to be aware of if I have cataract surgery?
  • What is the follow-up plan after surgery?
  • What are the signs of a problem after cataract surgery?
  • What will my out-of-pocket cost be if I have cataract surgery?
  • What if I choose not to have cataract surgery?

Cataract surgery is the only way to permanently remove cataracts and restore your vision. It’s typically a safe and effective procedure, and you’ll usually notice an improvement in your vision within a day or two.

Medicare and most insurance plans will cover most of the costs of cataract surgery. However, you’ll typically have higher out-of-pocket costs if you opt for an IOL that can focus at more than one distance, if the procedure is done at a hospital, and if there are complications during surgery.

Be sure to talk with your ophthalmologist about your options, costs, and recovery timeframe if cataract surgery is recommended for you.