June 28, 2013

By Diane Walker, RN, MS, CSA

In a previous blog post we talked about what cataracts are and how you might recognize the common changes that they cause in your vision.  Let’s continue that discussion of how common cataracts are among older adults and how cataract surgeries are the primary treatment for improving vision. By age 80, nearly half of Americans either have a cataract or have had surgery to repair one. Here’s what you need to know about cataract surgery and post surgery.

What part of the eye is operated on?

Cataract surgery replaces the cloudy lens in the eye.  The lens of the eye, which lies between the cornea and retina in back area of the eye, is normally clear. When it becomes cloudy, images in the form of light pass through the lens to the retina where the light is changed into nerve signals to the brain.  A cloudy lens can cause blurry vision, among other vision problems. One of the most common ways to correct visual defects is surgery where the natural lens is replaced with an artificial lens.

My doctor says I have a cataract, but he wants to wait to do the surgery. Why?

The clouding in a lens usually starts out in one area that is small so it doesn’t interfere with your vision. Over time, cataracts grow larger. When they do, they can begin to cause vision problems. There is no need to operate until a cataract affects your daily activities like reading, driving, or watching television. If your daily life isn’t impacted, your doctor may suggest trying other ways to improve your vision and will postpone the surgery. In the meantime, you will need to continue visiting your doctor so that he or she can monitor your cataract’s growth.

Is cataract surgery serious?

There is no surgery without risk. However, cataract surgery is the most commonly performed type of surgery in the U.S. There are many cataract surgeons who have done these eye and vision procedures thousands of times.

What does cataract surgery entail?

To replace the lens, a small incision is made in the eye. The surgeon will either then remove the lens, or break it up using a laser or ultrasound, and then remove it using suction. Usually, the surgeon then replaces the lens with an artificial one known as an intraocular lens. If there are other conditions affecting the eye such as age-related macular degeneration or glaucoma, a soft lens or magnifying glasses may be used to correct the vision.

Do people still have to wear those thick glasses after cataract surgery?

No. Today, cataract patients who have intraocular lenses implanted may have to use reading glasses for close vision, but most don’t need glasses otherwise. And there are even new intraocular lenses called “multifocal” and “accommodating” intraocular lenses that can make reading glasses unnecessary. 

Does Medicare cover the cost of cataract surgery?

Yes. Medicare and most health insurance plans will cover cataract surgery and regular intraocular lenses. Medicare does not, however, cover the newer premium lenses that correct near, intermediate, and far vision.

What are the side effects of cataract surgery?

With every kind of surgery, there is a risk of pain, swelling, bleeding and infections. Generally, though, very few cataract surgery patients experience serious complications. Your doctor may recommend eyedrops to help with healing and prevent infection, and advise you to avoid bending form the waist and to avoid lifting heavy items as this can raise the pressure in the eye. In most cases, healing is complete within seven to eight weeks.

If you’d like more information about cataract surgery, visit the Mayo clinic’s page.