Is Cataract Surgery Scary?

This Week’s Question: I have to have cataract surgery and I’m a little frightened. Should I be?

I don’t know anyone who isn’t a little frightened by surgery of any kind, but cataract removal is one of the safest and most effective types of surgery. It’s also one of the most common operations performed in the United States. About 9 out of 10 people who have the surgery have improved vision.

A cataract is a clouding of the lens, the clear part of the eye that helps focus images like the lens in a camera. Cataracts can blur images and discolor them.

Most cataracts are related to aging. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. There are other causes of cataracts such as diabetes, eye injury, radiation and surgery for other eye problems.

Cataracts tend to worsen gradually. The clear lens slowly changes to a yellowish/brownish color, adding a brownish tint to vision. If you have advanced lens discoloration, you may not be able to identify blues and purples.

The most common symptoms of a cataract are: blurred images, faded colors, glare, poor night vision, double vision, and frequent prescription changes in your eyeglasses or contact lenses. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor, because they can be signs of other eye problems.

The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses. If these measures do not help, surgery is the only effective treatment. The surgeon removes the cloudy lens and replaces it with a plastic lens.

Like every other kind of surgery, there are risks to cataract surgery such as infection and bleeding. Serious infection can diminish vision. Cataract surgery slightly increases your risk of retinal detachment, a serious condition that demands emergency treatment to prevent permanent impairment or even blindness. The retina is a light-sensitive membrane lining the inner eyeball; it is connected to the brain by the optic nerve.

The operation usually lasts less than one hour and is almost painless. After the operation, a patch may be placed over the eye. Most people who have cataract surgery can go home the same day. In most cases, healing will be complete within eight weeks.

What can you do about cataracts? Wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight may help delay cataract. If you smoke, stop. Researchers also believe good nutrition can help reduce the risk of age-related cataract. They recommend eating green leafy vegetables, fruit, and other foods with antioxidants.

If you are 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. In addition to cataract, your eyecare professional can check for signs of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other vision disorders. Early treatment for many eye diseases may save your sight.

The Healthy Geezer column publishes each Wednesday on LiveScience. If you would like to ask a question, please write © 2009 by Fred Cicetti.

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."