With cataracts typically being considered a natural part of getting older, it’s no surprise that cataract surgery is the most common type of eye surgery around the world. Although you may have heard of cataracts before, you may be less familiar with what it actually is, how it’s diagnosed, or how it’s treated. So, what is a cataract in the eye?
What is a Cataract?
In the eye is an anatomical structure known as the crystalline lens. The lens sits behind the coloured iris, which makes it difficult to view by just looking in a mirror yourself. At birth, a healthy lens is optically transparent, thanks to a specific arrangement of its fibres. However, due to increasing age and other factors, these fibres may lose their transparent structure. The resulting haze, cloudiness, or opacity is known as a cataract.
What is a cataract in the eye caused by? Age is the greatest contributing factor, but cataracts may also arise from:
- Trauma to the eye
- Association with systemic metabolic diseases, such as diabetes
- The use of certain medications, particularly corticosteroids
- Congenital conditions
An age-related cataract is more likely after the age of 50 or 60; the older you are, the more likely you are to develop them. Cataracts also tend to be progressive. However, they don’t necessarily grow in a linear fashion. You may find that your sight seems quite stable for years before deteriorating rapidly from the development of a cataract. While cataracts typically develop in both eyes, it’s not uncommon for one to be more advanced than the other. If you’re content with what you can see, even if a cataract is present, it’s typically quite safe to defer cataract surgery.
The diagnosis of cataracts is easy and straightforward with an eye care professional such as an optometrist or ophthalmologist. You will be asked to read letters of increasingly smaller size on a chart, and the clinician will be able to view the cataract directly through a piece of equipment called a slit lamp. Performing these tests helps your eye care professional to advise you appropriately on the timing of eye surgery to address your cataracts.
What You Should Know About Cataract Surgery?
At this point in time, cataract surgery is the only way to treat a cataract. However, if you feel like you’re not ready for eye surgery yet, there are other ways that you can get the most out of your sight while you’re waiting for cataract surgery.
If your cataracts are still in the early or even moderate stages of progression, you may not notice any symptoms. If your cataracts aren’t bothering you, your surgeon will usually tell you to postpone eye surgery until they begin to interfere with your daily tasks. As the cataracts advance, you may begin to notice symptoms such as:
- Foggy, hazy, or cloudy sight
- Difficulty with glare sensitivity, such as when driving at night
- Requiring increased lighting to pick out fine detail, such as reading small print
You may also find your spectacle or contact lens prescription begins changing, where it once was stable for years. Some people may also be aware of a change in their colour perception, though this is not common.
If you’re not yet ready for cataract surgery, you can consider:
- Improving the lighting around your house or workspace, especially in areas that you do fine detail near work, such as reading or sewing
- Using a magnifying lens to make small details easier to see
- Wearing sunglasses when driving, outdoors, or in uncomfortably glary situations. However, it is not safe or recommended to wear sunglasses when driving at night
- Updating your glasses or contact lens prescription.
The point at which someone feels they need to have their cataracts removed is different for everyone. It depends heavily on the demands of your vision according to your lifestyle, hobbies, and occupation. For example, someone who is a colourist or interior designer may be more impacted by the changes to their colour perception from cataracts compared to a gamer or an accountant, who may have a greater tolerance for the gradual deterioration of their sight.
Once your cataracts have progressed to a point where the above solutions are no longer adequate, your eye care professional may recommend you consider cataract surgery. Cataract surgery is a type of eye surgery involving surgical removal of the cataract from your eye. This is performed under a local or topical anaesthetic and can be over in as little as 20 minutes per eye as a day operation. The surgeon creates an incision in the cornea, the front surface of your eye. Through this incision, other instruments can access the cataract behind the iris. These tools are used to open the membrane capsule, fragment the cataract into smaller pieces, and then suction these pieces from the eye.
After the cataract has been removed, an artificial lens implant known as an intraocular lens is usually inserted into the membrane capsule. This intraocular lens can be calculated to correct your eye’s prescription, meaning that many people are no longer dependent on their glasses after cataract surgery.
If you believe you may developing cataracts, or for a further discussion about what is a cataract in the eye, speak with your local optometrist or ophthalmologist by calling us on (03) 9070 5753.
Note: Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Before proceeding, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner.