Cataracts are one of the most common eye conditions, but they may also be one of the most misunderstood. While in later stages cataracts can cause a person’s eye to appear cloudy to others, a cataract is not a growth and the condition is rarely harmful. Simply put, a cataract is the clouding of the eye’s lens.
The word “cataract” comes from the Greek word for “waterfall,” and some compare vision with cataracts to looking through a waterfall, explains Jackson Giles, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Piedmont Physicians Group.
Age is the biggest factor for cataracts, followed by ultraviolet light exposure, heredity, certain medications, like prescription or topical steroids, trauma to the eye and certain diseases.
While cataracts are common – Dr. Giles says if you live long enough, cataracts are almost inevitable – they are usually benign and treatable.
“If you’re over the age of 90, your lens won’t be totally clear,” he says.
Many people don’t know they have cataracts until the condition is advanced and begins to affect their vision. The symptoms include decreased or cloudy vision.
“Most people can live with them,” he says. “It’s very rare that they would cause permanent problems. It’s a quality of life issue.”
“Surgery is the only way to treat cataracts,” Dr. Giles says.
Surgery is elective and ophthalmologists work with patients to determine whether or not the surgery is necessary.
For example, a 40-year-old accountant with 20/30 vision may be bothered enough by cataracts that it impedes his or her work, Dr. Giles says. On the other hand, a 90-year-old with 20/50 vision may decide surgery is not necessary because cataracts only minimally impact his or her quality of life.
The surgery is an outpatient procedure and most patients can return to their normal routines within a few hours or the next day.
During the procedure, an ophthalmologist will remove the cloudy lens and replace it with a plastic lens that measures about one-tenth of an inch across.
“Until recently, the plastic lens had a fixed focus, but now we offer a multifocal lens, which improves both distance and up-close vision,” he says. “If a patient is a good candidate for a multifocal lens, they can often do without glasses after surgery.”
Eye exams are important for detecting conditions like cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. Schedule a checkup with an ophthalmologist every two years or annually if you are over the age of 60.
Visit Piedmont.org to find an ophthalmologist near you.