Cataracts are common, so common in fact that according to the World Health Organisation they are the leading cause of blindness across the world. This is mainly due to the fact that access to cataract surgery is limited in many parts of the world. Please note that this article is not meant to replace the advice of your eye specialist.
So, what is a cataract?
A cataract is a clouding (opacification) of the part of the eyeball called the lens, not a film across the front of the eye as is commonly believed. When we are young, our lens is perfectly clear so light can pass through it unimpeded and will be perfectly focused on the retina but as we grow older it tends to become yellow and hazy and disrupt the passage of light. In the early stages this causes some blurring of vision and people often also experience glare and dazzle to light. This then, slowly in most and quickly in some, continues to deteriorate until cataracts if untreated can totally blur the vision. People at increased risk of cataract development are those with metabolic disease (e.g. diabetes), those on long-term steroid use and those who have had previous eye injury.
Does having a cataract damage the eye?
No, cataracts themselves usually don’t damage the internal workings of the eye but in some glaucoma patients we see an improvement in their pressure control after cataract surgery. This means that in some vulnerable people cataracts may increase eye pressure.
What can be done?
Thankfully with new innovative surgical techniques, modern equipment and lens replacements surgery for cataracts is one of the most successful operations around. Surgical techniques have progressed in leaps and bounds and now modern small-incision (key-hole) surgery can be performed under local anesthetic without the need to stay in hospital. Modern equipment designed to aid the surgeon break-up the cataract with ultra-sound energy has revolutionised the operation. Similarly replacement lens (intra-ocular lens) design has evolved over the last 55 or so years. Nowadays we use special UV light-filtering fold-able acrylic implants that replace the focusing function of the human lens. These last forever inside the eye and almost never need to be replaced. Each lens is tailored to the individual specifications of each person’s eye.
So, with appropriate pre-operative evaluation and modern surgical techniques each patient should be visually rehabilitated back to a level before the onset of cataract. Often in addition to the cataract removal, the patient’s glasses requirements may be reduced or completely removed.