Cataracts occur when the eye’s clear lens becomes cloudy. For many patients, the development is gradual and slow, making it difficult to learn that you have the condition until symptoms become more pronounced. Patients who have recently been diagnosed with cataracts, as well as their friends and family, will want to learn more about this condition before weighing options for treatment.
The clouding of the eye’s lens when forming a cataract can occur in one eye or both and it cannot be spread from one to the other, according to the National Eye Institute. The lens is the clear part of your eye and it helps focus images on the light-sensitive retina located at the back of the eye.
Under normal circumstances, light travels through the clear lens and then hits the retina, where the light signals are converted into nerve impulses. These electrical impulses are directed to the brain so we can see.
Your eye’s lens is composed of protein and water, with the protein structured so the lens remains clear, enabling light to reach the retina. As individuals grow older, the proteins in the lens can start to cluster, eventually clouding a part of the lens to become a cataract. As it grows over time, it becomes cloudier and further interferes with normal vision.
Furthermore, when the clear lens of your eye grows cloudier, you may notice that your vision is tinged brown. This complication results in patients sometimes not being able to clearly identify the colors blue and purple. Consider how this issue with sensing color will affect the way you engage with the world, from selecting clothes to wear in the morning to enjoying nature or a movie.
Prevalence of Cataracts
If you’ve been recently diagnosed with cataracts, it would be normal for you to wonder just how common this condition is. You’re definitely not alone in having this problem with your vision.
The most frequent cause of vision loss related to aging is cataracts, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of Americans aged more than 80 years have cataracts, and at least one million surgeries are performed in this country every year to address it. However, not all patients are candidates for surgery, so individuals may need to consider other treatment options.
Signs and Symptoms
- Vision is blurry or seems cloudy.
- In some cases, colors will be muted.
- Problems with glare.
- When you look at lamps, car headlights, or the sun, the light may seem too intense and you may even see a halo around lights.
- Diminished night vision, making it difficult or impossible for you to drive safely at night.
- Seeing multiple images or experiencing double vision in one eye.
- The need for frequent changes to your contact lenses or eyeglasses.
Of course, if you notice any of these symptoms, your priority should be to make an appointment with your eye care professional.
An eye doctor has a slew of diagnostic tests to determine if a patient has cataracts. You’ll typically undergo a test of your visual acuity, just as you would when coming in to be fitted for glasses or contacts.
You’ll have a dilated eye exam, where drops widen your pupils so the eye doctor can look at your optic nerve and retina for damage. To check the pressure, the eye care professional will administer a tonometry test. Patients often have their eyes numbed during the testing, and the effects of eye dilation will last several hours, necessitating you to wear protective shades.
Aging is a major cause of cataracts. The people who are most at risk include individuals with diabetes, people who smoke or drink alcohol, and those who have experienced lengthy exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun without protective shades. Using steroids can lead to cataracts, so athletes using performance enhancements should keep that risk in mind.
There are four other common methods of developing cataracts:
- Congenital Cataract: These occur at birth, although some babies develop them as children. The NEI notes that these are typically too small to affect a child’s vision.
- Radiation Cataract: People who work around radioactive materials can sometimes be exposed to damaging energy.
- Secondary Cataract: These occur after a patient has had surgery for other issues with their eyes, including a procedure for glaucoma.
- Traumatic Cataract: Trauma, such as being hit by a baseball or injury from a car crash can lead to cataracts, and in some cases, it may take years to develop.
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent age-related cataracts at this time.
However, if you are at high risk because you have diabetes, you can decrease your risk by keeping tight control over your blood sugar levels. Stop smoking and reduce/quit your alcohol intake, protect your eyes from lengthy exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun by wearing UV-blocking sunglasses, and avoid using performance enhancement products that contain steroids.
Women who want to reduce the risk of congenital cataracts in their children can check with their doctors about receiving a rubella immunization before becoming pregnant. Pregnant women should undergo prenatal care with their obstetricians regularly.
A variety of options exist for addressing and treating cataracts. You’ll need to consult with your eye care professional to see what might be most appropriate for you. For some with early stages, the solution could be a prescription for new glasses, using brighter lights, a magnifier, and sunglasses with anti-glare coating.
If cataracts are larger and make it very difficult to do normal tasks such as reading and driving, surgery may be an appropriate response. There are two main surgical approaches to the treatment of cataracts:
Extracapsular cataract extraction
During this procedure, the eye doctor uses sound waves to break up the diseased lens. The eye doctor then extracts the broken up lens through a tiny, hollow tube. This process, known as phacoemulsification or phaco, is the most common approach to cataract surgery.
Intracapsular cataract extraction
This technique involves removal of both the eye’s lens and the lens capsule, which is a thin membrane around the lens that gives the lens its shape. Doctors perform intracapsular cataract extraction only in rare cases.
After removing the lens, it will be replaced with one of three options:
- An intraocular lens, which is a plastic lens that the eye doctor places in the eye during surgery
- A contact lens
- Special cataract glasses that provide very powerful magnification