Cataracts develop when proteins in the lens of your eye clump together, eventually causing changes in your vision like cloudiness, blurriness, or reduced color vision.
While cataracts can cause unpleasant or distracting visual changes and symptoms, they don’t usually require immediate treatment. As a rule, cataracts are surgically removed only if they’ve grown severe enough to disrupt your daily activities.
Instead of intervening right away to treat your cataract, your doctor will most likely seek to work with you to manage your symptoms until treatment becomes unavoidable.
While you may be able to limit the disruption a cataract causes by modifying your activities and using visual aids, there’s no curative treatment for cataracts short of surgery.
Surgery for cataracts consists of removing the damaged lens from your eye and replacing it with an artificial lens.
Cataracts usually pose no risk to other parts of your eye, or to your long-term visual health once your lens is replaced. This means that you should carefully consider the risks and benefits of surgery before moving ahead with it.
Sometimes, it may be advisable to treat cataracts if they interfere with treating another eye problem, even if the cataracts themselves aren’t causing significant disruption. (1,2)
Managing Cataract Symptoms Without Surgery
The first treatment stage for most people with cataracts is an effort to manage and minimize their symptoms.
For example, you may find that you can improve your functional vision by taking steps such as:
- Updating your glasses prescription
- Improving the lighting in your home or office
- Using magnifying lenses and other visual aids
- Wearing antiglare sunglasses
Once measures like these are no longer enough for you to comfortably and confidently go about daily activities like driving, reading, or using a computer, it may be time to consider surgery. (2,3)
Considerations for Cataract Surgery
Surgery to treat cataracts is almost never an urgent necessity, so it’s important for both you and your doctor to carefully consider whether it’s right for you at any time.
Your doctor may base cataract treatment recommendations on:
- Your age
- Your overall health
- How severe your cataract is
- How well you’re managing your vision changes
- Your personal preferences (3)
Your overall health may be an important consideration, because certain conditions, like diabetes, may speed up the progression of cataracts. If you expect your vision to get worse quickly, surgery may be advisable sooner rather than later.
Delaying surgery for cataracts doesn’t affect how well your vision will be restored when you eventually have the surgery. That’s because the procedure involves removing and replacing the lens of your eye.
If you decide not to go forward with the surgery, your doctor may recommend regular follow-up exams to monitor your vision and reconsider your options. How often these exams are advised will depend on the severity and progression of your cataracts. (4)
What to Expect With Cataract Surgery
Surgery for cataracts involves removing your damaged lens and, usually, replacing it with an artificial lens.
Known as an intraocular lens, this replacement lens requires no maintenance and becomes a permanent part of your eye. It won’t feel any different from your eye’s natural lens.
About 90 percent or more of people who have cataract surgery receive an intraocular lens. (3)
For some people, an intraocular lens isn’t an option because of other eye problems. In these cases, you’ll need to wear specialized glasses or contact lenses after your surgery to correctly focus light onto your retina.
When you undergo surgery for cataracts, you’ll have the area around your eyes numbed, but you’ll probably stay awake for the procedure.
You probably won’t need to stay overnight in the hospital after your surgery, unless a serious complication occurs during the procedure. This situation is extremely rare.
But you will need to have someone drive you home from the hospital.
After your surgery, you’ll experience some discomfort that should get better within a few days. You should be completely healed within about eight weeks.
If you need surgery in both eyes, you’ll have surgery in one eye first, then in the other eye once you’ve completely recovered from the first surgery. (3)
Cataract Surgery Procedures
There are two main procedures used to operate on cataracts:
Small Incision Cataract Surgery Also known as phacoemulsification, this procedure involves making a small incision on the side of your cornea (the clear outer layer of your eye).
Your surgeon uses an ultrasound device to break up the center of your damaged lens, which is then removed through the incision using suction.
Extracapsular Surgery This procedure involves making a longer incision in your cornea, through which your surgeon removes the center of your lens. The rest of the lens is then removed using suction. (3)
Another procedure is rarely used:
Intracapsular Surgery In this procedure, both your lens and the capsule surrounding it are removed. The more common procedures listed above remove only the lens, leaving the capsule intact. (3)
Surgery Aftercare and Complications
After your surgery, it’s important to keep your eye clean and to wash your hands before touching it. You should also take any drugs prescribed to reduce your risk of infection.
Like many types of surgery, cataract surgery involves a risk of infection and bleeding. It also slightly raises your risk of retinal detachment, a medical emergency that can result in permanent vision loss. (5)
Signs of retinal detachment include specks, or “floaters,” in your field of vision. With emergency treatment, it’s often possible to avoid permanent vision loss. (2)
Cataract surgery is one of the most common operations in the United States, with more than 1.5 million procedures performed each year. Only about 2 percent of these cases result in serious complications. (6)
About 90 percent of people who have cataract surgery experience improvement in their vision, according to the National Eye Institute. (2)