A common medical issue for adults 60 and older is vision loss due to cataracts. Likely, the word cataract is familiar to you, but what are they and what are the cataract treatment options?

Cataract Treatment Options

Eye Structure

As described by the National Eye Institute, our eye has a lens, made mostly of water and protein. Its purpose is to focus light, or an image, onto the retina. The retina is light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that changes the light or image into nerve signals that are transmitted to our brain. A cataract forms when the protein particles in the lens clumps together, causing a cloudy or blurry image to the retina. In addition, the lens may change from clear to a yellowish/brownish color, resulting in difficulty with color distinction.

Signs of Cataract

Signs of cataracts include:

  • clouded, blurred or dim vision.
  • poor night vision.
  • sensitivity to light and glare or halos around lights.
  • need for brighter light for reading and other activities.
  • frequent changes in eyeglass or contact lens prescription.
  • fading or yellowing of colors.
  • double vision in a single eye.

In addition to age, risk factors that could cause earlier formation of cataracts include diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, prolonged exposure to sunlight, previous eye surgery or injury, prolonged use of corticosteroid medications and excessive alcohol consumption.

Cataract Treatment

When a cataract impedes your vision to the point of interfering with daily activities, it is time for removal. There are two treatment options: traditional cataract surgery or laser-assisted cataract surgery. Traditional surgery involves removal of the natural lens and replacing it with a clear artificial lens called an intraocular lens (IOL). The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) describes the surgery process. First, your eye is numbed with eye drops or an injection around the eye.

You may also be given medication to help you relax. You will be awake during surgery and may detect light or movement but you will not actually see what is happening. Tiny incisions are made through the cornea to reach the lens for removal and the new lens is inserted. No stiches are needed as the incisions are self-sealing. A protective eye shield will be placed over the eye. After a 15-30-minute rest in recovery, you will be on your way home.

Using Laser

In laser-assisted surgery, a laser is used to make the incision and ultrasound is used to break up the cataract for removal. An IOL is then implanted. Laser surgery may be the better choice if you have astigmatism or if you want a premium lens implanted for astigmatism correction.

Recovery after surgery includes eye drops, wearing the eye shield when sleeping, avoiding soap or water in the eye and not rubbing it. The ophthalmologist will see you for follow-up soon after your surgery to check on the healing process, to determine if any corrective glasses or contacts are needed and to advise when you can resume normal activities. Recuperation time is about the same for traditional or laser-assisted procedures.

Risks & Complications

As with any surgery, there are some possible risks or complications which your doctor should explain in detail to you. Medicare and most private insurance cover the cost of traditional cataract surgery, though some basic requirements need to be met. Laser-assisted surgery has more stringent requirements for insurance coverage.

The AAO and the National Eye Health Education Program have informative videos, animations, webinars and audio pieces about cataracts and many other eye health topics. Visit aao.org or nei.nih.gov/nehep/programs/visionandaging/watch-listen-and-learn.

Images courtesy: National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health.

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