For many adults, cataracts are a natural part of aging. Unfortunately, as they develop and progress, they can negatively impact your vision. Cataracts can be the reason your glasses or contacts may not keep your vision in focus. Cataracts can also cause the images you see to blur, colors to dull, and can even make it hard to see at night.
What is a Cataract?
The eye has two natural lenses, one on the surface (cornea) and a second called the crystalline lens, which lays behind the pupil and the colored iris. These two lenses work together to focus images in the back of your eye onto the retina.
At birth, and for most people at a young age, a normal crystalline lens is transparent. A cataract causes the clouding of this lens, which changes the way light is passed into the eye. Cataracts can cause blurry or dim vision because light is not being properly passed through to the retina, which is what transmits images to the brain.
Who is Affected by Cataracts?
Cataracts are extremely prevalent – they affect more than 22 million people nationwide who are over 40 years old. They are the current leading cause of blindness among adults in the United States. By the year 2020, Prevent Blindness America (PBA) estimates that more than 30 million Americans will have cataracts.
Another startling statistic – PBA also says that by the time Americans are 80 years old, more than half will have cataracts. While cataracts are much more common in adults over 40, they can sometimes be found in young adults, children, and even babies.
What Causes Cataracts?
More often than not, cataracts are a natural part of aging. They usually develop after the age of 40 and typically age related. While the exact cause of cataracts is unknown, possible risk factors may include:
- Hereditary influences or diseases like diabetes or hypertension
- Long-term exposure to UV rays from the sun
- Eye diseases or inflammation
- Habits like smoking or tobacco use
- Medications such as steroids
How Cataracts Develop
Cataracts typically develop over time. At first, most cataracts will have little to no effect on your vision. However, over months or even years after a cataract begins to develop, you may notice your vision blurring slightly, as if you are looking through a clouded piece of glass. You may also notice that colors appear duller, light from the sun may seem brighter or more glaring, or your night vision may decrease.
The type of cataract will affect the symptoms you experience.
Types of Cataracts
Cataracts can come in a number of different forms including:
- Nuclear cataracts: these form deep in the nucleus, or central zone, of the eye’s lens. These are typically associated with aging. Symptoms associated with nuclear cataracts may include a temporary improvement in near vision, which is short lived and will disappear as the cataract worsens.
- Subcapsular cataracts: these cataracts form at the back of the lens and are more common among people with diabetes or those taking high doses of steroid medications. These cataracts usually don’t show symptoms right away.
- Cortical cataracts: these cataracts typically start in the periphery of the lens and work their way to the center. This type of cataract occurs in the lens cortex, which surrounds the central nucleus.
Cataract Treatment Options
When cataract symptoms first occur, vision may be temporarily improved with new glasses, bifocals, or other visual aids. When cataracts have progressed and begin to seriously affect your daily life and impair your vision, cataract surgery may be a good option for you.
Cataract surgery is a common procedure that helps patients regain their vision and quality of life. This involves lens replacement surgery to remove the cataract.
Lens Replacement Surgery
The day of the procedure, patients are given a mild sedative to help relax and eye drops are used to dilate your pupils. An anesthetic will be used to numb your eye during the operation.
During the procedure, a small incision is created and the natural crystalline lens, which has become clouded, is removed from the eye. Once this lens is removed, it is replaced with a new artificial lens. This replacement lens allows patients to regain the level of vision they had prior to developing the cataract. Advancements in technology have created a number of customized lenses, which may be used depending on the individual needs of the patient.
The actual surgery – removing the cataract and inserting an artificial lens – typically takes ten to fifteen minutes. After the procedure is complete, your doctor will monitor your condition for a while before you can have someone drive you home. The entire process, from the time you arrive at the surgical center to the time you go home, should take about a half day.
Find out more about lens replacement surgery.
Recovery from Cataract Surgery
In most cases, the healing process after cataract surgery will take a few days. Your vision will be blurry right after the operation and for a few days following the procedure. Some patients have described the feeling after as slightly uncomfortable, similar to having an eyelash in their eye.
It may take up to one month for your eyes to fully heal. Most doctors will recommend limiting vigorous physical activity for the first week or two following the procedure. You should also avoid deep bending or lifting for a couple of weeks, as this can increase eye pressure.
To help your eyes heal, use the ointment or eye drops prescribed by your doctor. This will decrease swelling and protect against infection.
Glasses may still be necessary after cataract surgery.
Follow up visits
After your surgery, you will have follow-up visits with your doctor to make sure your eyes are healing properly. These visits will also allow you to ask any follow-up questions you have about activities or medication you are taking.
Enjoy better vision
After the procedure, your vision will improve every day. Many patients find themselves able to see brighter colors and have clearer and sharper vision than they have had in a long time.