Cataract surgery is a procedure used to treat cataracts that are affecting your daily activities. It is the most common operation performed in the UK, with more than 300,000 procedures carried out each year.
A cataract is cloudiness of the lens (the normally clear structure in your eye which focuses the light). They can develop in one or both eyes. The cloudiness can become worse over time, causing vision to become increasingly blurry, hazy or cloudy. Most cataracts develop with age, although rarely babies are born with cataracts or children develop them while they are still young.
What are cataracts?
Minor cloudiness of the lens is a normal part of ageing. Significant cloudiness, or cataracts, generally get slowly worse over time and surgery to remove them is the only way to restore vision.
When is cataract surgery recommended?
However, it's not necessary to have surgery if your vision is not significantly affected and you don't have any difficulties carrying out everyday tasks.
Cataract surgery is a relatively straightforward procedure that normally takes up to 30 to 45 minutes. It is usually carried out as day surgery under local anaesthetic, which means you are awake during the procedure and you can go home on the same day.
During the operation, the surgeon makes a tiny incision (cut) in your eye so they can remove the affected lens. When the lens has been removed, the surgeon inserts a small plastic lens, called an intraocular implant or intraocular lens, in its place.
If you have cataracts in both eyes, this procedure will usually be carried out on separate occasions a few weeks apart. This gives the first eye time to heal and time for your vision to return.
You will normally be able to go home a few hours after having cataract surgery, although you will need to arrange for someone to collect you and take you home.
Getting back to normal
Take it easy for the first two or three days after the operation and make sure to use any eye drops you are given by the hospital. You can carry on with most of your normal activities after cataract surgery, although you will need to avoid touching your eye or getting anything in it (such as soap and water) for a few weeks.
Most people will experience an improvement in their sight soon after cataract surgery, although your vision may be blurred for a few days.
Results of cataract surgery
Eventually, you will usually be able to:
see things in focus (although glasses are often needed)
look into lights without as much glare
tell the difference between colours, which will seem brighter
Most people need to wear glasses for near or distance vision (or both) after cataract surgery. This is because artificial lens implants cannot focus on a range of different distances. Normally, the surgeon will aim for more focused distance vision, with dependence on reading glasses for close up work, although this depends on the strength of your glasses and individual circumstances.
With glasses, most people have a good enough level of vision to be able to drive and carry out everyday activities without difficulty. Your vision may not be restored to normal if you also have another eye condition or in the rare event of a serious complication.
The risk of serious complications as a result of cataract surgery is small.
What are the risks?
The most common complication is a condition called posterior capsule opacification (PCO), which can cause your vision to become cloudy again. This is where a skin or membrane grows over the back of the lens implant months or years later.
If necessary, PCO can be treated with a simple laser eye surgery procedure to cut away the membrane.
Other complications are much rarer and can include:
tearing of the lens capsule (the "pocket" that holds the lens in place)
all or a bit of the cataract dropping into the back of the eye
inability to remove all of the cataract or insert a lens implant
infection or bleeding in the eye
Most complications that can potentially develop after cataract surgery can be treated with medication or further surgery, and don't usually have a long-term impact on your vision. However, there is a very small risk (around one in 1,000) of permanent loss of sight in the treated eye as a direct result of the operation.
Click here for all Downloadable Patient Information Leaflets from the British and Eire Association of Vitreoretinal Surgeons.