If you’re like a lot of people, the thought of having surgery on your eyes is enough to make you squirm a little. After all, a single grain of sand or an eyelash in your eyes can pretty much ruin your day, right? It may come as a surprise, then, that cataract surgery only takes about 15 minutes, is typically done under local anesthesia, and most patients are home the same day.
In fact, cataract surgery is the most common elective surgery among Medicare beneficiaries in the United States. Among people in the U.S. over 40, more than 25 million develop cataracts, a number that is expected to increase more than 45 million by 2050.
If you develop cataracts, surgery is the only treatment that can completely remove them. And it’s a procedure that is highly safe and very effective. Research has shown that cataract surgery improves quality of life, reduces the risk of falling, and leads to fewer auto accidents. Plus, one study has shown that people who have successful cataract surgery have a long-term mortality risk 40 percent lower than those who don’t.
Cataracts are a normal part of the aging process for many people, and it typically affects people gradually over years. It’s a condition that impairs your vision by making the natural lenses in your eyes cloudy. As a result, your vision looks blurry or hazy, or you don’t see colors as clearly, as if you were looking through glass that had fog or dust on it.
Because the symptoms develop gradually, it may be difficult to tell if you have cataracts at first. You may simply become more nearsighted at the beginning, which can be corrected with glasses. However, as it progresses, cataracts can cause your night vision to get worse and colors to appear dull. At some point, your vision will get to the point where you feel compelled to address it, and that‘s usually when surgery is recommended.
What is cataract surgery?
The most common procedure in cataract surgery is called phacoemulsification. Up to 98 percent of all procedures performed by an experienced surgeon are considered successful and free of complications. During this procedure, the clouded lens is removed and replaced by a synthetic lens. If you have cataracts in both eyes, your doctor may recommend fixing the eye with the worst cataract first. If the surgery is successful and vision improves, you may decide not to have surgery on the other eye. However, most people find that they have better depth perception if both eyes are corrected.
There are several types of synthetic lens implants that are available, but the most common one is known as a monofocal implant. It’s effective in that it provides good contrast so it helps with driving and many other activities. It’s also a good choice for people who have this surgery when they are relatively young. That said, sometimes people with monofocal lens implants still need glasses for reading or distance vision. There are other types of lenses, such as multifocal lenses and toric lenses for people who have an astigmatism. Monofocal lenses are typically covered by most insurance policies, however, these more specialized lenses are more expensive and may not be covered so it’s important to talk to your doctor and your insurance company.
If you think you may have cataracts, or you’ve already been diagnosed and are trying to decide whether to have surgery, the American Academy of Ophthalmology has developed a list of four questions people should consider when making this decision:
- Are your cataracts impacting your daily or work activities?
With cataracts, you can experience dim, blurry, or yellowed vision, as well as double vision in one or both eyes. Plus, the lack of contrast and clarity can make many activities difficult, and can make driving dangerous.
- Are your cataracts affecting your ability to drive at night?
Cataracts can cause you to see halos around lights and make low-light settings a problem. Your vision can also become impaired enough that you might fail the vision test for your driver’s license.
- Are your cataracts interfering with outdoor activities?
You may experience a higher sensitivity to glare, which means outdoor activities like skiing and surfing, as well as many other activities can be difficult.
- Can you manage your cataracts in other ways?
Simply having cataracts is not a good enough reason to have surgery. If you can improve your vision in other ways, such as with corrective lenses, brighter lighting, or polarized sunglasses, that is preferable to surgery.
Regardless of whether you think you may have cataracts or not, as you age it becomes more and more important to have regular comprehensive eye exams by your doctor. This will detect not only cataracts but also glaucoma and many other eye conditions as well.