Have you noticed changes in your vision as you’ve gotten older? Maybe bright colors have started to fade, crisp edges have gotten blurry, or you’ve started seeing two outlines around objects.
Some age-related deterioration of vision is to be expected. But if these changes are interfering with your ability to live a normal life, you may be one of the over 24 million Americans with cataracts.
The good news is that cataracts are treatable with a procedure called phacoemulsification. Read on to find out what phacoemulsification is and how it can help you get your vision back to normal.
What Are Cataracts?
When light enters your eye, it first passes through the cornea. The cornea directs the light through your pupil and toward the lens in your eye. The lens, in turn, focuses the light further back onto the retina, allowing you to see.
If this lens gets damaged or becomes cloudy, it’s no longer able to focus light onto the retina. This condition is known as cataracts. If you shine a light on someone’s eye with cataracts, the lens will appear to be whitish and opaque.
Other than their clouded appearance, the signs and symptoms of cataracts include:
- Blurred or double vision
- Poor night vision, especially for small details
- Bright colors appear as dull or yellow
- Some areas of vision may appear worse than others, or one eye may see worse than the other
Cataracts are generally due to the natural breakdown of proteins in the eye as we get older. However, some people are born with them (congenital cataracts) and others get them as the result of an injury to the eye.
Risk factors for cataracts include a family history of the condition, diabetes, eye trauma, radiation treatment near the head, sun damage, or frequent corticosteroid use.
Cataracts themselves won’t hurt you. As such, they don’t need to be treated unless they interfere with your everyday life.
If your cataracts are minor, your ophthalmologist may just warn you to take better care of your eyes to keep them from worsening. The best way to do this is to keep your eyes protected from the sun. Whenever you’re outdoors, wear sunglasses with UV filters or get an anti-UV coating on your normal glasses lenses.
If your cataracts are severe, your ophthalmologist may recommend surgical intervention. There are a few different approaches to cataract surgery, but the most common one is known as phacoemulsification.
What Is Phacoemulsification?
The prefix “phaco-” means “lens-shaped,” and emulsification is the process of breaking components like fats or proteins down into smaller parts.
Phacoemulsification, then, is the process of breaking the lens in your eye down into tiny fragments. Your lens is then removed and replaced with an artificial one.
Here’s what you can expect from the procedure.
Before your procedure, the doctor will examine your eyes and take internal measurements. They’ll use this information to determine the size and type of artificial intraocular lens (IOL) they’ll implant.
You might have to go without eating or drinking for up to 12 hours before the procedure. If you’re on blood thinners or prostate medication, you may have to avoid taking them for a short time. You might also be prescribed antibiotic eye drops to use for a few days to prevent infection.
The first step of the procedure is to dilate and numb your eyes. You might also get a sedative to help you stay calm, but you’ll still be awake. This eliminates the risks associated with going under general anesthesia.
Your doctor will then make a tiny incision on the front of your cornea and feed in a small, needle-like ultrasound probe. They’ll place the probe in the affected area of your lens. The probe emits ultrasound waves that emulsify (break up) the lens into fragments, which are then suctioned out of the eye.
The back half of your lens, called the capsule, will stay intact to serve as an anchor for the implant. The doctor then inserts the IOL and may use a couple of tiny stitches to close up the incision. The artificial lens becomes a permanent part of your eye, and your vision is one step closer to being back to normal.
The whole procedure takes under an hour, but expect to be there a bit longer for pre- and post-op care.
Most patients are able to go home as soon as the procedure is finished. The doctor will do a fast post-op evaluation and give you specific aftercare instructions. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to drive yourself for a while after surgery, so plan to have someone there to take you home.
You will probably have to use medicated eye drops for a few weeks to keep your eyes lubricated and infection-free. You’ll need to wear a shield or sturdy eyepatch while sleeping to protect your eye while it heals. You’ll also have to wear dark sunglasses when outdoors or under bright lights to avoid damage.
You’ll need to take extra care to avoid getting anything in your eye that could irritate it. This includes water or shampoo from a shower, dust, and dirt. Keep your eyes closed when you shower and don’t go swimming or use a hot tub for a few weeks after surgery.
It’s also important to avoid heavy lifting, bending down with your head toward the ground, and strenuous exercise. The increased blood flow and pressure to the eye can re-open the closed wound.
You can expect some redness and blurry vision while your eye heals. Wait to resume normal activities until you’ve been cleared by your ophthalmologist.
Risks of Cataract Surgery
Cataract eye surgery is extremely common and considered to be safe. Even so, every surgical procedure, no matter how minor, carries some risk of complications. Some of the possible adverse effects of cataract removal surgery include:
- Inflammation and/or bleeding
- Ptosis (drooping eyelid)
- Displacement of the artificial lens
- Retinal detachment or glaucoma
- Vision loss
People with certain pre-existing conditions, like diabetes, hypertension, or HIV, are at higher risk for complications. Talk with your ophthalmologist before the procedure to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks in your case.
Cataract Removal: The First Step to Restoring Your Vision
If you’re suffering from moderate to severe cataracts, you don’t have to deal with your vision loss forever. A phacoemulsification procedure could help you get back to living a normal life. Talk to your eye doctor to find out if you’re a good candidate for this surgery.
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