What Are Cataracts?
Cataracts are a painless clouding of the internal lens of the eye. Because they block light from passing through the lens, cataracts make it difficult to see clearly and can even cause blindness over time. Cataracts are progressive, meaning they worsen with time. Most cases occur in older people, but sometimes they can be seen in younger people as well.
How Your Vision Is Affected By Cataracts
Light enters the eye and passes through the lens. The lens of the eye focuses light onto the retina, which transmits visual signals through the optic nerve to the brain. Clouding of the lens due to cataracts results in blurring of the images you see. Other problems with the eyes can also cause blurry vision, but cataracts produce some characteristic symptoms.
- Blurry Vision
The most common symptom of cataracts is seeing blurry images at any distance. People may describe their vision as foggy, cloudy, or filmy. Cataracts get worse with time, and less light reaches the retina. It may be especially hard for people with cataracts to see and drive at night.
Glare, or sensitivity to light, is another symptom of cataracts. It can be difficult for a person with cataracts to see in bright sunlight. Indoor lights may begin to seem too bright, or they may appear to have halos around them. Glare from oncoming headlights can cause problems with driving at night.
- Double Vision
Diplopia, or double vision, when looking with one eye can be another symptom of cataracts. This is not the same as diplopia that arises from improper alignment of the eyes. The double vision seen with cataracts occurs even when you look through only one eye.
Who Can Get Cataracts?
Most cataracts occur in older people and are related to the aging process. Over half of Americans over 65 have cataracts. Sometimes, babies can be born with cataracts, known as congenital cataracts. Uncommonly, children can get cataracts as a result of illness or trauma to the eye.
What Are the Causes of Cataracts?
It is not precisely understood why people get cataracts. Aging is a known risk factor. Other factors that may also play a role in the development of cataracts include:
- Excessive use of alcohol
- Trauma to the eyes
- Extended use of corticosteroids
- Prolonged radiation or sun exposure
Surgery to remove cataracts may be required if the related vision loss cannot be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. Cataract surgery involves removing the cloudy natural lens and replacing it with an artificial lens. The operation is usually done on an outpatient basis and is very safe and effective. For those who need surgery on both eyes, the surgery is usually done on one eye at a time.
Types of Cataract Surgery
The most common type of cataract surgery is known as phacoemulsification (phaco). In this procedure, the doctor makes a tiny incision in the eye and breaks up the lens using ultrasound waves. The lens is then taken out and replaced with an intraocular lens (IOL). Another type of cataract surgery is called extracapsular cataract surgery. This procedure involves a larger incision and removal of the cloudy lens in one piece. In most cases, placement of an IOL eliminates the need for thick eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Innovations In Cataract Surgery
New developments in cataract surgery allow for procedures that correct both near and distance vision, reducing or even eliminating the need for glasses after the operation. Conventional “monofocal” lenses only correct distance vision, so people still need reading glasses after surgery. So-called “toric” implants are available to correct astigmatism. This picture illustrates a lens in development (shown next to a dime) that offers better color vision.
What to Expect After Cataract Surgery
After surgery, your eyes may itch and feel sensitive to light for a few days. You may need to wear a shield or glasses for protection, and you may be prescribed eyedrops to speed the healing process. It takes about 8 weeks for the eye to completely heal even though changes in vision are apparent shortly following the surgery. You may still need glasses for distance vision or reading, after the surgery, and it is likely that you will require a new prescription after your eye has healed.
Cataracts Prevention Tips
Remember, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of getting cataracts:
- Don’t smoke.
- Always wear a hat or sunglasses in the sun.
- Keep diabetes well controlled.
- Limit alcohol consumption.