Your Health A-Z

Blurred lines? What you need to know about cataracts

Cataracts is a correctable condition, easily remedied with a routine procedure. An ophthalmologist explains.

‘There are many different types and causes of cataracts, but the most common is normal age-related degeneration of the eye’s lens,’ says Dr Alan Sara, supporting ophthalmologist at Mediclinic Howick. ‘If we live long enough, we’re all destined to get them.’

We all have a natural, crystal-clear lens situated behind the iris, the coloured part of the eye. ‘As we get older, in the same way that our hair turns grey and our skin changes, the clear lens in our eyes becomes opaque and yellow,’ Dr Sara explains.

What are the symptoms of cataracts?

Simply put, cataracts cause changes in vision. ‘In the early stages, the patient will have a problem with contrast and will find it more difficult to see objects that are not well contrasted,’ Dr Sara explains.

As the cataract develops further, night driving becomes challenging because the light from oncoming headlights seems to break up and ‘shatter’.

‘The patient will gradually require a brighter light to read by and may find it difficult to see smaller images on TV or read the text at the bottom of the screen,’ Dr Sara adds.

As the person’s vision deteriorates, the normal activities of daily living become increasingly difficult.

How are cataracts diagnosed?

An ophthalmologist can diagnose cataracts with a simple examination. After putting drops in the eyes to open the pupils wide to make it easier to check the retina (back of the eye), the ophthalmologist will use a special device to examine the lens.

A new technique is being researched at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. It uses LED (light-emitting diode) technology to measure cataracts at a molecular level. ‘This research brings us one step closer to developing a non-invasive treatment for cataracts,’ says Prof Des Smith, one of the co-founders of the research.

Can cataracts be prevented?

‘Unfortunately, at the moment there are no medically proven measures to prevent cataracts from forming,’ says Dr Sara. ‘Once a cataract has formed, the only treatment option is to remove it surgically and to insert an artificial acrylic lens into the eye.’

How does cataract removal surgery work?

Called a small-incision phacoemulsification, it’s a routine procedure performed by most ophthalmic surgeons. About 10 million cataract removal operations are performed globally each year.

‘The procedure is usually done under local anaesthetic administered by eye drops. The level of discomfort is negligible, and the recovery and recuperation time is very quick,’ says Dr Sara.

For the 1% of patients who are unable to use the standard artificial lens (for several reasons, including irregularly shaped corneas), a new pinhead-sized lens implant called the IC-8 was recently pioneered in the UK.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.