Good vision is an important part of performing daily tasks and overall health. The interaction between the cornea, lens and the retina is what creates good vision. Aging and disease processes can change the function of the lens over time. Cataracts are a common occurrence in the eyes of older adults. Knowing the symptoms can help you decide when surgery is right for you.
Vision occurs when light is focused by the lens and displayed on the retina. The lens in a young, healthy eye has some elasticity and is clear. A clear lens is able to focus images sharply onto the retina. As people age, the lens can become cloudy resulting in a cataract.
Cataracts are caused by chemical changes in the lens proteins and develop over time. Some medications, like steroids, can cause cataract development to speed-up. Symptoms people can experience when developing cataracts include halos around lights, difficulty reading in low light, dull colors and frequent changing of glasses.
“Incoming light is diffused through a cataract and not sharply focused on the retina resulting in blurred or double vision,” says McFarland Clinic Ophthalmologist Nicolas Hamouche, MD.
Though nothing can be done to prevent cataracts, surgery is available to correct the condition. Cataract surgery is the most commonly performed surgical procedure and has been happening for over 4,000 years. The first recorded procedure was documented in 500 B.C. Surgical techniques have advanced to become safer and more efficient. Phacoemulsification is the current form of cataract surgery.
Local anesthesia is administered, however, the patient remains awake during the procedure. “The muscles of the eye are temporarily paralyzed to prevent the eye from moving,” says Dr. Hamouche.
During surgery, an incision is made through the cornea and a miniature, jackhammer-like tool is inserted to break-up the cataract. Once the cataract has been broken the remaining pieces are sucked out of the eye and a new lens is inserted.
“The intraocular lenses are made of a foldable, clear plastic that opens once inserted,” says Dr. Hamouche. “Foldable lenses have revolutionized cataract surgery, incisions are much smaller so the risk of infection is greatly reduced, and visual recovery is speedy.”
The new lens restores clear media and is able to focus the image on the retina which eliminates blurry vision. Lenses can also correct refractive errors such as nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism.
“Most surgeries focus on regaining vision for distances,” Dr. Hamouche says, “then reading glasses are used to compensate for seeing close up.” “Bifocal” lenses are also available.
Surgery usually takes 20 minutes and requires minimal recovery time. “Two days after surgery patients are able to drive, read and go back to work; heavy lifting and bending should be avoided for the first week,” says Dr. Hamouche.
Determining when it is time to have cataract surgery varies with each patient. If a patient has cataracts in both eyes, surgery is done one eye at a time, starting with the dominant eye.
“I don’t do cataract surgery just because of a cataract,” says Dr. Hamouche. “The patient should be experiencing vision problems before the surgery is done.”