Cataracts signs and symptoms: How to know when it's time to get surgery

You will probably get cataracts, but it's OK: Here's what you need to know.

cataracts, old asian man in dark blue polo shirt getting eye exam with laser machine, cataract awareness month
What you need to know about cataracts: Signs, symptoms and surgery (Photo via Getty)

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While it's not as sunny an experience as retirement, grandkids, or cruising, cataracts are, unfortunately, in the cards for many of us as we age.

However, despite the anxiety-provoking nature of eye surgery, cataract surgery is nothing to be feared, according to an ophthalmologist. This Cataract Awareness Month, we decided to delve into the common medical procedure and answer all of your burning questions. What are the signs and symptoms of cataracts and what should patients know about the procedure? Scroll down to find out.

What are cataracts?

A cataract is a cloudy area in the lens of the eye (behind the iris and the pupil) that gradually leads to a decrease in vision.

Cataracts can vary in size and are extremely common, impacting almost everyone as they age. According to the Canadian Association of Optometrists, cataracts may develop slowly over several years or form rapidly in a matter of months. If you get regular eye exams, your eye doctor may diagnose you with a cataract before you experience any vision loss.

What are symptoms of cataracts?

Symptoms vary depending on the severity of the cataract. Because cataracts can develop over several years, someone with an early-stage cataract may not experience any symptoms. However, as the severity and size of the cataract grow, symptoms may include:

  • Blurry, foggy, or double vision

  • Decreased night vision

  • Seeing halos around lights

  • Seeing dull or muted colours, or having difficulty identifying certain colours

  • Sensitivity to bright lights

graphic illustration of blue eye with clouded cataract lens versus healthy eye with clear lens
What a healthy eye looks like versus an eye with a cataract (Photo via Getty)

Who is at risk for cataracts?

Consider cataracts the grey hairs of eye health, as they impact almost everyone as they age.

"It's one of those things that if you live long enough, [you] will develop cataracts," says Dr. Ken Roberts, a consultant ophthalmologist at Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick.

More than 3.5 million Canadians live with cataracts, which is more than double the next leading cause of vision loss (age-related macular degeneration).

Because it's so common, cataract surgery has become the number one most-performed surgery in Canada.

It's in the "same category as wisdom teeth," says Roberts. "We all get them. It's just that common."

While sunglasses and antioxidant-rich foods may help slow the growth of cataracts, with every candle on your birthday cake, your risk of developing them goes up. In Canada, more than 80 per cent of cases are diagnosed in populations aged 60 and over. In groups younger than 60, early-onset cataracts may be linked to diabetes, trauma, or inherited genetic conditions.

Cataract surgery: What to expect

Cataracts, in almost all cases, are completely treatable. Modern cataract surgery is a safe, routine procedure typically done in less than 30 minutes. While the setting may differ depending on local healthcare resources, the surgery is commonly done in an outpatient setting.

During cataract surgery, your eye surgeon will remove the cloudy crystalline lens from the eye and replace it with a clear implant known as an intraocular lens. Despite its surgical nature, Roberts says most patients don't require needles or stitches.

To simplify, "the procedure is done by ultrasound," he says. "We freeze the eye with a gel that works extremely well," so while you may feel subtle pressure or your doctor touching your face, "nothing is painful."

While cataract treatment is not a "spa day," it's not anything "you have to bear," Roberts tells Yahoo Canada. Post-procedure, most patients comment that it "wasn't so bad."

blue surgical glove holding intraocular lens, cataract surgery lens
An intraocular lens is an artificial lens surgically implanted in the human eye following the removal of the natural lens clouded by cataract. (Photo via Getty)

Because "we've done so many cataracts over the last 20-30 years," eye surgeons know what to expect and are "very good at predicting the cases that we're going to have trouble with."

While some people may recall cataracts used to have to be "ripe" (i.e. dense) to be operated on, surgeons no longer have to wait until patients are legally blind to perform the procedure.

"Generally, we look at pulling the trigger for cataract surgery once [patients] have complaints," Roberts says. "If they can't see well at night, are changing their glasses prescriptions every six months, or no longer meet the driving standards, "then we look at removing cataracts. We [no longer] have to wait until they're severe."

The "nice thing" about cataract surgery is that it's "normally a one-and-done per eye," he says. The surgery "will last a lifetime," so pending complications, you're free to go and live your life.

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