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Cataract Treatment: What's Best for You?

By Lisa M. Davila, B.S.N., M.S.
November 29, 2023
senior man at the eye doctor

About half of adults age 75 and older in the U.S. have cataracts, according to the National Eye Institute.

Cataracts, the gradual formation of cloudy areas in the lens of the eye, can develop due to natural aging, but an injury, radiation, and certain diseases (such as diabetes) can also contribute.

Over time, cataracts can make everything appear blurry, hazy, or less colorful. It may also become harder to read and drive. Once cataracts become advanced or interfere with your daily functioning, surgery may be necessary.

Although cataract surgery is performed over 3.5 million times every year, it's important to talk to your doctor about if and what type of surgery is best for you.

Talk to your doctor!

Whether it's the conventional approach or the newer laser surgery method, cataract surgery consists of removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens. 

Serious risks--bleeding, infection, retinal detachment, vision loss--are rare, and general anesthesia isn't required. Although both methods have been shown to be very safe, not everyone is a good candidate. 

"Your ophthalmologist can answer questions about your eye health, cataract treatment, and what type of surgery may be best," says Dr. Lynne Diggs, medical director at Riderwood, an Erickson Senior Living community in Silver Spring, Md. 

She continues, "If you decide on surgery, you'll need to be cleared by your primary care provider a few weeks before the procedure. This usually consists of a medical history review, a physical exam, an electrocardiogram, and an evaluation or possible adjustment of your medications."

Understanding the difference

Lasers use less energy than conventional surgical equipment, which may result in less swelling and slightly faster healing. As a patient, though, you're unlikely to notice because cataract surgery is characterized by minimal swelling and quick healing, regardless of method.

Laser cataract surgery makes it easier to implant multifocal lenses, which can correct distance and close vision, or specialized lenses that can correct astigmatism. 

"The laser approach is often preferred for people with very dense cataracts, but it tends to be more expensive than conventional surgery," says Diggs. "It's important to check your insurance. Not all plans cover laser surgery and specialized lenses."

What to expect

On surgery day, you may be given medication to help relax you and some numbing eye drops. Whether it's conventional or laser, the procedure itself typically takes no more than 30 minutes. 

Afterward, you'll wear a special eye shield and use prescribed eye drops. You may need to limit certain activities, like bending over or heavy lifting, as well. 

Some discomfort, itching, and light sensitivity may occur for a few days. Your eye may take six to eight weeks to completely heal, but most people notice significant improvement in their vision and resume their regular activities much sooner.

Your eye health

Some people need surgery earlier to make it possible for their doctor to monitor and treat other eye conditions, such as diabetic retinopathy or age-related macular degeneration. In fact, research shows that cataract surgery can be helpful as part of a treatment plan for people with open-angle glaucoma. 

"Remember to get your eyes checked every one to two years," says Diggs. "That's the best way to keep a pulse on your eye health--and to detect signs of cataracts."