A cataract is a visual impairment where the lens of the eye, which is just behind the iris and pupil, becomes cloudy and opaque. This is the most common cause of visual impairment in people aged 40 and older and is the world’s leading cause of blindness. According to Prevent Blindness America, there are more cases of cataracts than there are cases of diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and macular degeneration combined. Over 22 million Americans are diagnosed with cataracts, and the number is expected to exceed 30 million by the year 2020.
The three most prevalent types of cataract are:
Subcapsular cataract: These occur at the back of the lens. Diabetics taking steroid medications are most at risk for this type of cataract.
Nuclear cataract: These develop deep in the center of the lens and are most often a symptom of aging.
Cortical cataract: This form of cataract is typified by white opacities that are usually wedge-like in shape. They begin to form in the periphery of the lens and move toward the center like the spokes of a wheel. Cortical cataracts occur in the cortex- the part of the lens surrounding the nucleus.
The Symptoms of Cataracts
- Blurred, cloudy, or dim vision
- Difficulty seeing at night
- Doubled vision in one eye
- Seeing ‘halos’ around lights
- Colors fade or turn yellow
- Sensitivity to glare
- Frequent eyeglass changes
- Having to use more light to read
The Causes of Cataracts
The lens inside your eyes is like the lens of a camera. It focuses light coming into the front of the eye onto the light receptors on the back of the eye. It is made of proteins and water primarily. Those proteins are specially aligned so that they do not obstruct the light passing through the eye. But as we age that alignment of the proteins can degrade, causing cataracts. While the root causes of cataracts are not well understood, there are a number of risk factors that have been identified as being associated with an increased likelihood that a person will develop the condition. These risk factors include;
- Previous eye injury or inflammation
- Previous eye surgery
- Ultraviolet radiation exposure
- Use of corticosteroid medications
- Use of statin medicines
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Alcohol consumption
- Family history
- High myopia
The current leading theory claims that cataracts are caused by oxidation within the lens. This idea is corroborated by studies that show a diet high in natural antioxidants has a preventative effect on this condition.
Not all the experts agree that cataracts can be prevented at all, but the association of risk factors certainly seem to indicate that there is a possibility of at least reducing or delaying the onset of the condition. Studies have shown that Vitamin E and carotenoids are associated with lowered risk of developing cataracts. So diet, and avoiding risk factors like smoking, excessive exposure to ultraviolet light, and losing weight are all good ways to reduce a person’s chances of getting this eye condition.
Diagnosis and Treatment
In order to diagnose cataracts, your doctor will perform a visual acuity test, a slip-lamp examination, or a retinal exam. Most eye surgeons will recommend eye surgery as soon as symptoms develop, or as soon as they begin to degrade the quality of a person’s life. But the success rates with all forms of cataract surgery are very high. The eye is self-sealing and contains the fastest healing tissues in the body, so no stitches will be needed.
While the risks are small, the benefits are almost always considered great enough to outweigh the risks. As with any surgery, there is a risk of infection. With cataract surgery, there is also a chance that the patient will suffer a retinal detachment.
Most cataract surgeries take only about ten to twenty minutes to complete, and recovery is usually fast and complete with great improvements to the patient’s vision. Many patients say their vision after cataract surgery is even better than it was when they were a child.
After eye surgery, patients can expect to feel some discomfort for three days up to a week, but most patients report feeling that they have recovered completely within one to two days.
When your surgery is completed, you will be taken to a recovery room where you will wait for the effects of the sedatives to wear off. You will need someone to drive you home, and most patients will want to rest for a few hours thereafter. You may be able to remove the protective shield your doctor will have provided within a few hours. Follow the advice you are given as, and remove it only after the recommended period of time.
Most patients will be prescribed an eye drop solution which is meant to help prevent infection and reduce discomfort. Your doctor will direct you to follow a schedule, the details of which will depend on the type of eye drops you are prescribed. Not every cataract surgery patient receives the same kinds of eye drops as outcomes and expectations vary.
To reduce your recovery time, discomfort, and to avoid damaging your eyes during this delicate period of time follow these guidelines.
- Use your eye drops according to the advice your doctor gives you. You will receive a detailed written schedule which should be clear and easy to follow.
- Don’t drive for two days.
- Do not bend over, or perform any physically exerting activities. This is to prevent any internal pressure from pressing against the affected area.
- Take care when walking, as you may be visually impaired for a period of time, and bumping into objects could damage your eyes.
- You should not swim or submerge your face in water for one week. You can shower or bathe, as long as you are not submerging your eyes.
- Avoid any eye irritant, and do not rub your eye. Rubbing the eye is dangerous for anyone, as it can cause a retinal detachment.
You should be able to do computer work or watch television within a few hours after the surgery. Keep in mind that just as quitting smoking, and taking a nutrient rich diet may help to prevent cataracts, these can also help you to recover more successfully and to keep the gains you will enjoy after your surgery. It may be a good idea to take a supplement with vitamin E and carotenoids in addition to partaking of a well-balanced diet.
Vision is our most cherished sense. Most recipients of cataract surgery are extremely pleased with the results. So if you are preparing for cataract surgery, consider yourself lucky, you are likely to gain a level of visual acuity that will rival that of your children or grandchildren!