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Cataracts | Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

Those suffering from cataracts experience a clouding of the natural lens inside the eye. The condition is very common and often inevitable as you age, with 60% of the population experiencing the visual complication as they reach their 60s.

Find out all you need to know about cataracts here, including what they are, symptoms, causes, types of cataract, prevention and treatment.

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What is a cataract?

Cataracts are a common visual problem. Often developing very gradually, the natural crystalline lens becomes clouded, causing vision to become misty. It the most common cause of vision loss in the world. The word “cataract” comes from the Greek word “Cataracti” which means waterfall. The lens can take on this appearance when the condition is quite advanced.

The clouding of the natural lens of the eye affects us all as we age. Some of us develop this condition earlier than others but with all of us now living longer, unfortunately, this has become one of life’s inevitabilities. The longer cataracts are left to develop, the more severely they can affect the clarity of your vision. If left untreated, cataracts can eventually result in blindness.

Fortunately, cataracts are treatable, and advances in treatment mean that the problem can be dealt with very effectively through a simple and safe procedure.

Cataract symptoms

The lens of each eye needs to be clear in order for your eyes to work properly, so cloudy lenses adversely affect your vision. In a normal eye, the clear lens allows light to reach the retina at the back of the eye, which then communicates with the brain via the optic nerve – this is how we see. However, with a cataract, less light can reach the retina, so your vision is affected.

The problem tends to develop slowly over time. Eventually, cataracts result in a gradual loss of the clarity of vision. Often, patients may complain of:

  • Cloudiness or mistiness
  • A fading or loss in the vibrancy of colour (although this tends to be a gradual symptom and less obvious)
  • Increased light scatter, resulting in a dazzling “glare” when the eye is exposed to bright light, or general sensitivity to light
  • Double vision
  • Changes to glasses prescription

Cataracts are not painful, but it is important to get your eyes checked as soon as you begin to experience any of these symptoms. By getting seen sooner rather than later, you can limit the impact that cataracts will have on your vision.

Testing for cataracts

If you haven’t already been diagnosed with cataracts, your consultant will need to carry out a number of tests and assess your symptoms to confirm that you do have the condition.

These tests can include a visual acuity test, a slit-lamp examination and/or pupil dilation, which gives your surgeon a full view of your lens to better assess any abnormalities.

What causes cataracts?  

As well as getting older, there are other factors that contribute to the likelihood of developing cataracts, although we don’t yet fully understand what causes them.

Age: Because they develop gradually over time, cataracts are much more common in older people

UV damage as a result of exposure to sunlight

Familial factors: cataracts run in families, so if close relatives suffer from the symptoms then there will be an increased risk to yourself

Steroid use

Ocular inflammation

Previous trauma

Diabetes

Smoking

Alcohol consumption

Types of cataract

There are three main types of cataract, each of which affects a different layer of the eye’s lens.

  • A cortical cataract appears in the outer layers of the lens and is often white and chalky
  • A nuclear cataract appears in the nucleus (centre) of the lens and is often yellowy-brown
  • A posterior sub-capsular cataract affects the back of the lens and is more commonly seen in diabetic patients

These types of cataract are often found in combination. There are also other, less common types of cataract such as blue dot, christmas tree and bear skin. Read more about the types of cataract here.

How to prevent cataracts

There’s no guarantee that you will be able to prevent cataracts, which are extremely common in people over 60. But cataract causes and prevention are closely linked; there are a few things that you can do to reduce your chances of developing the condition, by addressing the risk factors associated with cataracts.

  • Give up smoking
  • Protect your eyes from bright sunlight with UV protective sunglasses
  • Take care to drink alcohol in moderation
  • Keep diabetes under control with a healthy diet, exercise and medication if prescribed
  • Have regular eye exams to make sure you’re aware of any changes to your eye health

Cataracts & driving

If you have cataracts and drive, you need to make sure that your vision doesn’t go below the legal driving standard. You must be able to read a car number plate from 20 metres away, with vision correction (glasses or contact lenses) if necessary. You must also have a field of vision of at least 120 degrees.

Your optometrist or ophthalmologist will be able to tell you if you no longer meet these requirements due to progressive cataracts or another eye condition. If this is the case, you’re not legally allowed to drive and you could be prosecuted if you continue to do so.

If you drive for a living (for example lorry drivers), you need to inform the DVLA of any condition affecting your eyesight. You can check the necessary driving standards for professional drivers here.

Cataract treatment

The only way to treat cataracts is through the surgical removal of the cloudy protein within the natural lens. There is no way to reverse or  “cure” a cataract.

ali-mearza

Cataract surgery

Cataract surgery is a very successful treatment option and is the most commonly performed procedure in the UK with over 300,000 surgeries being performed every year. The surgery takes around 30 minutes, and is performed as a day case under local anesthetic in most cases.

An ultrasound probe is used to gently break up and remove the cloudy protein from the natural lens, preparing the eye for an artificial lens to be inserted.

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Femtosecond laser cataract surgery

Additionally, it is now possible to remove cataracts using Femtosecond Laser Technology combined with ultrasound technology. This new generation of cataract surgery uses a special type of laser to help remove the cataract, reducing the manual element of the surgery. The laser, known as a femtosecond laser, is programmed to make precise incisions in exactly the right places within the cornea and lens. The cataract is then removed using a sophisticated ultrasonic device.

Read more
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If you suffer from cataracts and would like to discuss potential treatment options, make an enquiry or call us on 0203 369 2020.

Risks of cataract surgery

Cataract surgery complications are uncommon

Cataract surgery, like all surgery, can have complications. National statistics show a complication rate of 2-3% across all surgeons. Experienced eye surgeons have significantly lower rates of complications and our consultants have audited complication rates below 0.5%. Risk of sight loss is thought to be 1/10000 based on national statistics.

Rare complications include;

  • Tearing of the lens capsule – 0.2% at OCL
  • Infection or bleeding – 0% at OCL
  • Retinal detachment – 0.1% at OCL
  • Sight loss – 0% at OCL

Longer-term issues after cataract surgery include lens capsule opacification, which occurs in 20-30% of patients after surgery. Capsular opacification is easily treated with a YAG laser capsulotomy as an outpatient procedure. Read more about YAG laser here.

Ask the surgeons

Mr Allon Barsam operation suit

Can cataracts cause headaches? No, cataracts do not cause headaches. There may be a connection between headaches and cataracts between some people. As cataracts become more severe over time, vision becomes increasingly blurry and the person experiencing it will be forced to focus harder to see clearly, for example by holding things close to her or his face in order to read. This may result in mild headaches. Moreover, people who are prone to headaches may find these worsening, as a result of overusing their eyes. However, this is not the same thing as saying that cataracts cause headaches.

Allon Barsam

Director & founding surgeon of OCL Vision
Meet Allon Barsam

Dr Ali Mearza operating

Can a stroke cause cataracts? No, strokes do not cause cataracts. Strokes occur when part of your brain is starved of oxygen. As your eyes work directly with parts of your brain to allow you to see, there are cases when a stroke affects the vision. The Stroke Association states that two thirds of people who suffer a stroke may have problems with their vision afterwards. However, it isn’t thought that strokes can cause cataracts.

Ali Mearza

Director & founding surgeon of OCL Vision
Meet Ali Mearza

Dr Romesh Angunawela looking to the camera

Do cataracts make your eyes water? No, cataracts do not make your eyes water. Patients with cataract normally do not experience any pain. Cataracts do not obstruct the tear duct and typically do not make the eyes red or irritated. As a result, cataracts are not associated with eyes watering.

Romesh Angunawela

Director & founding surgeon of OCL Vision
Meet Romesh Angunawela

More Cataract FAQs

Find out the answers to some more of the most commonly asked questions about cataracts, from our expert surgeons.

1
What do cataracts look like?

Cataracts are an opacification of the crystalline lens, which is normally transparent. They often appear as a white or cloudy film covering the eyeball. They are normally not visible to the naked eye, for example in early stages or when situated at the back of the eye. They can only be seen when they mature in time and if not located in the back of the eye. Cataracts are caused by the proteins in the eye clumping and causing the cloudy film.

2
Can cataracts come back?

No, cataracts do not come back. The aim of cataract surgery is to remove the clouded lens and a new customised lens is put in its place. As the damaged natural lens is removed, there is no possibility of developing another cataract in the future.

3
What does vision look like with cataracts?

Cataracts obscure the entire visual field so vision is constantly blurry. In the early stages some people complain of glare only at night or when the sun is low in the sky during the day time, as there is not enough light to compensate for the blurred vision. As cataracts worsen, over time less light will reach the retina and vision will worsen.

4
How long do cataracts take to develop?

Cataracts take years, sometimes months, to accelerate and worsen. It is a slow, progressive condition. It is not possible to predict with precision how long cataracts will take to develop in any given patient. In younger patients and patients with diabetes, cataracts may progress more rapidly over a short period of time.

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JERALD

“If Apple did cataract operations, then they would do them like OCL do cataract operations. All the staff are knowledgeable and well organised. Everything went according to plan, the operation, recovery and aftercare. Many thanks for improving my eyesight.”

 

Why you should choose us for cataract surgery

Cataract surgery is a safe and effective way to restore vision and serious complications are very rare. A national statistic shows that 97% of cataract surgery patients enjoy improved vision with no complications, however at OCL Vision our success rate is 99.5%.

85% of our patients have better than 20/20 vision one month on from the procedure (the national average is 51%), and 100% of our patients have better than 20/40 vision (the legal driving standard) one month on from the procedure.

In 2018, OCL surgeons, Allon Barsam, Romesh Angunawela and Ali Mearza were voted by their peers as some of the UK’s best cataract surgeons following a National survey of eye surgeons by the Daily Mail. They are regularly consulted by industry and feature on advisory boards for new technologies. It’s a testament to our surgeons that we’re trusted the world over to test and use new technology, and that we’re involved in pushing lens and laser eye surgery to exciting new possibilities.

Looking for more information on what sets our cataract surgery apart? Our cataract surgery brochure contains all the information you need. View our brochure page to receive your free download.