Cataract surgery is a simple operation where a surgeon removes the eye’s clouded natural lens and replaces it with an artificial, intraocular lens (IOL). The entire procedure is performed on an outpatient basis and usually lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. Patients may experience little to no pain and can generally return to their normal activities the following day.
Cataract surgery is not LASIK, a type of laser surgery in which the cornea is reshaped to improve vision.
Your surgeon will make a small incision at or near your cornea and insert an instrument about the size of a pen tip to break up and remove the cloudy lens. After removing the natural lens, the IOL is inserted through the same incision and set into its permanent position.
Cataract surgery is considered one of the safest and most effective medical procedures. More than 3 million cataract surgeries are performed each year in the United States alone. Not every cataract surgery is the same, though. Your doctor may choose one of three options for removing your cataract:
Phacoemulsification. This technique is the most advanced and most commonly used. It requires a tiny incision on the side of the cornea (an eighth of an inch or smaller). Due to the size and location of the incision, patients will rarely need stitches, and the eye heals rapidly. Out of patients who undergo phacoemulsification, more than 97 percent experience no complications.
Extracapsular surgery. This type of surgery, which usually takes place outside the U.S., is used for very dense or rigid IOLs. It requires a larger incision, and stitches are needed, so it takes longer for the eye to heal. More than 90 percent of patients who receive this procedure see 20/40 or better.
Intracapsular surgery. The earliest cataract surgeries performed hundreds of years ago involved this procedure, where they removed the lens and the capsule. However, intracapsular surgery is rarely performed today, even in developing countries. Generally, it is reserved for cases where the lens has dislocated because of injury and accompanying disease.
Depending on the severity of your vision loss, you may be able to take some simple steps to delay surgery. Options include getting a new pair of prescription eyeglasses and increasing your home lighting. You may also reduce glare indoors by repositioning lights or outside by wearing polarized sunglasses.
But before deciding to delay surgery, you’ll need to consult your eye care professional and ask yourself how much your cataract affects your safety or quality of life.