During Cataract Awareness Month in August, the American Academy of Ophthalmology wants to remind people they don't have to live with vision loss from cataracts.
A cataract is the clouding of the eye's normally clear lens, blocking the passage of light needed for vision. Cataracts form slowly and cause no pain. Some stay small and hardly affect vision, but if the cataract does grow and begin to affect your vision, it can be removed with surgery.
"Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide; however, in most cases, vision loss from cataracts is reversible," said Mark Helm, M.D., Steamboat Springs ophthalmologist.
"New techniques developed over the past decade have made cataract surgery one of the safest and most successful procedures available in terms of restoring quality of life to patients," he said.
Each year, more than 1.6 million of these eye surgeries are performed in the United States.
Currently, there are no medications or exercises that will help cataracts disappear. Short-term treatment includes: eye glasses, contact lenses, strong bifocals, or magnifying lenses. Usually both eyes are affected, but not always. Changes can occur in months or very slowly during many years.
Although most cataracts develop as part of the aging process, they also can result from eye injuries, certain diseases such as diabetes, genetic inheritance, certain medications, steroid-use, cigarette smoking and obesity, as well as from frequent, unprotected exposure to ultraviolet rays.
"Some people notice a gradual, painless blurring of vision, double vision in one eye or fading or yellowing of colors," Helm said.
"When older patients mention sensitivity to glare and/or bright light or trouble driving at night, this may be caused by cataracts. Or, if a patient needs frequent changes to his or her glasses or contact lens prescriptions, I'll evaluate him or her for a cataract."
Contrary to popular belief, cataracts are not removed using lasers. Lasers are used only in follow-up procedures, if needed to remove a film that occasionally can grow behind the lens implant.
Cataract surgery most often is done as an outpatient procedure under local anesthesia.
"The cloudy natural lens can be replaced with an artificial lens to give the eye proper focusing power. In most cases, the improvement in the patient's vision is profound," Helm said.
If cataracts don't interfere with your life, you may choose not to do anything about them. Not all cataracts affect vision significantly or require treatment. When they do begin to interfere with your daily activities, then it may be time to have the cataract removed.
"Cataract surgery, although quite safe, is still surgery," Helm said. "The only person who can really decide when it's time to have a cataract removed is you, under the care of your doctor."
About 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older have cataracts. More than half of us will develop cataracts by age 80. While cataracts are a common cause of poor vision, they can be detected through a comprehensive eye exam and treated successfully.
Lisa A. Bankard coordinates community education and wellness programs at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.