Cataracts are one of the most common eye conditions affecting older U.S. adults, with an estimated 24.4 million over the age of 40 currently experiencing a cataract in at least one eye. By the age of 80, around 50% of patients will be affected. A cataract is a cloudy patch that develops in the center of your field of vision and makes some day to day activities more difficult. Fortunately, they are not life-threatening and can be treated fairly easily. Here’s what you need to know about cataracts, including how your eye doctor will diagnose them and what you can expect from your treatment.
Cataracts are caused by age-related changes to the two key substances found in the natural lens of our eyes – water and protein. As we get older, the previously evenly-dispersed proteins that allowed light to pass easily through them begin to move around and clump together. When they do this, light can no longer pass through effectively and this causes dark patches in our vision called cataracts. Over time, cataracts tend to get progressively larger until our vision is so impaired that we can be classed as being blind. You may have cataracts in one eye, but it is more common to see them in both. However, they may not progress at the same rate which may mean that your vision is better in one eye than the other.
Cataracts tend to develop slowly, and this means that you may overlook the very earliest signs of the condition, which include difficulty focusing and a slightly darker patch in your vision. Many patients feel as though they are trying to peer through frosted glass, such as the appearance of what they can see. Other signs of cataracts include:
Colors appear faded or pale
You may find that your eyes are sensitive to bright light
You may see double (two of something)
Worsening night vision
Should you experience these symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your eye doctor to discuss your concerns.
In many instances, cataracts are detected at annual comprehensive eye exams before patients are even aware that they have the condition. This is due to the fact that eye exams are designed to detect diseases and other problems affecting the eyes early on so that they can be treated promptly before patients experience a decline in their vision or any other debilitating symptoms. However, the same tests that would detect cataracts in an eye exam will also be used should you attend an appointment presenting with the symptoms of the condition. These include:
A retinal exam. This exam is carried out so that your eye doctor can see the structures at the back of your eyes, and in particular, an area of light-sensitive cells called the retina, to determine if there are any abnormalities. You’ll be given dilating eye drops to make your pupils wider before your eye doctor uses a piece of equipment called a slit lamp to examine the back of your eyes.
In addition to the retinal exam, the slit lamp will also be used to enable your eye doctor to visualize the structures ay the front of your eye under intense magnification. Again, they will be looking for anything unusual.
A visual acuity test. You’ll be asked to read letters from a chart and words from a book so that your eye doctor can check how well you can see at various differences. This is important because it will let them know the extent to which your vision may be impaired.
The information obtained from the tests above will be used to confirm a diagnosis of cataracts, after which your eye doctor will discuss treatment with you.
The treatment that you are offered for cataracts will depend on the extent to which your vision is impaired. In the earliest stages of cataracts, many patients can go months or even years just wearing prescription lenses to correct and enhance their vision. They are usually recommended to have an anti-reflective coating which will prevent glare and make it easier to deal with light, particularly at night.
Unfortunately, there is no way to reverse cataracts and while the progression of your cataracts may vary, patients nearly always end up having to undergo the only permanent treatment option that is available – cataract surgery.
Many people have concerns about any sort of surgery affecting their eyes, but cataract surgery is one of the most common surgical procedures performed on the eyes in the world and is very straightforward. Under local anesthetic (potentially with sedation if you are very nervous), or general anesthetic if necessary, your eye doctor will remove the clouded natural lens of your eye and replace it with an artificial version known as an intraocular lens or IOL for short. There are multiple types of IOL available, and which you will have will be decided with your eye doctor ahead of your surgery. IOLs cannot be affected by cataracts and should last for the duration of your lifetime. Since it can take a number of weeks for patients to see clearly following cataract surgery, your eye doctor will recommend that you have one eye treated and fully recovered before you undergo a second appointment.
For more information about diagnosing and treating cataracts, or to schedule a consultation with our expert eye care team, please contact our vision center in Walla Walla, WA today.