The lens of your eye is an olive-shaped portion that sits just behind the cornea, pupil, and iris. It changes shape to help focus on different distances that we see.

Many things can go wrong with the lens. These factors may include age, genetics, or injury. If your lens is damaged to the extent that it’s impacting your vision, surgical procedures may be an option to fix or replace the lens. Cataracts are one of the most common conditions that lead to lens replacement surgery.

In this article, you’ll learn what’s done during lens replacement surgery, what to expect if you’re going to have this surgery, and what it could cost in terms of dollars and risks.

During lens replacement surgery, your natural lens in the eye is usually removed and replaced with an artificial implant known as an intraocular lens.

This surgery can be used to correct age-related problems, such as cataracts, or to treat other disorders or injuries that impact how well the lens is working.

Lens replacement is often used to treat cataracts, with roughly 4 million people in the United States undergoing this surgery every year. Sometimes also referred to as cataract surgery, refractive lens exchange, or clear lens extraction, this procedure can also be used to treat other problems with the lens.

Cataracts can develop with age as the fibers become stiffer and your vision becomes clouded. Cataracts can also be a congenital problem that’s passed through families. Congenital cataracts are a leading cause of childhood blindness, and surgery is usually done within the first 6 weeks of life.

Whether lens replacement surgery is the right treatment choice is a decision best made by you and a surgeon. In many cases, surgery is reserved for when vision problems are limiting your ability to safely carry out your daily activities such as driving or reading.

Lens replacement surgery can be done in two ways: with traditional surgery or a laser procedure. With both techniques, a small incision is made — either by physically cutting with a scalpel or making a small laser-guided opening — in the cornea and outer layers of the eye above the lens.

Next, a surgeon will either use a small probe inserted into the opening (traditional surgery) or laser energy (laser surgery) to soften and break down your natural lens. Once dissolved, the natural lens is sucked out, and a new artificial lens is put in its place.

Regardless of which type of surgery is done, you don’t usually need stitches to close the opening in your eye. It will close and heal on its own. The whole surgery should take between 20 and 30 minutes.

As with any surgery, there are risks to undergoing lens replacement surgery.

The most significant risk is retinal detachment because of the damage it can cause to your vision. Retinal detachment is seen in between 1.5 and 8% of lens replacement surgeries and is most common in people undergoing surgery to correct myopia.

Other risks that have been observed after lens replacement surgery include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • bleeding
  • uveitis
  • posterior capsular opacification about 30% of the time postsurgery, according to an older 2009 study
  • endophthalmitis
  • temporarily increase in eye pressure (glaucoma)

Whether you have traditional or laser surgery, the risks and recovery time after lens replacement surgery are about the same. A full recovery often takes about 1 month

The cost of lens replacement surgery will depend on your health insurance plan and why you’re having the surgery. While surgery to correct medical conditions that could lead to vision loss are covered by many plans, surgery done to improve vision and reduce the need for glasses or contacts may not be covered.

Cataract surgery is usually deemed medically necessary, so it’s covered by Medicare and most private insurance plans. Coverage for lens replacement surgery to treat other problems may vary.

Without insurance, or if your plan doesn’t cover lens replacement surgery, you can expect lens replacement surgery to cost up to $7,000 per eye. The cost can vary based on where the surgery is done.

After you have lens replacement surgery, expect it to take some time before you notice any benefits. While some people can see clearly right after surgery, for others it can take a week or two for vision to clear.

You may also be instructed to wear a patch over the eye you had surgery on for at least a day after the procedure. The use of an eye patch can help to rest your eye or reduce light sensitivity, but the main goal is to protect your eye from trauma as it heals. Itching and irritation are common in the days after surgery, and a patch or clear covering shield can help keep you from scratching or rubbing it.

You may also need to use eye drops for 3 or 4 weeks after surgery to help healing.

A surgeon will let you know when you can resume your usual activities, such as driving, but you’ll need someone to drive you home on the day of surgery.

Although you can resume most normal activities within days of your surgery, it may be a few weeks before you’re cleared to drive. Follow-up appointments should be made on the day of surgery, and a surgeon may also prescribe you eye drops to help soothe and heal your eyes.

Lens replacement surgery is a relatively efficient and minimally invasive procedure that can improve your vision if you have certain conditions. Cataracts are one of the main issues lens replacement surgery is used to treat, but there are other indications, too.

Recovery can take time, and there are risks no matter how the surgery is done or why you’re doing it. Talk with a surgeon about your individual eye health and vision problems to decide if lens replacement surgery is right for you.