What Happens During a Cataract Operation?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 10 February 2020
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Cataracts are a common eye problem that plague nearly all adults beginning in middle age, and can occur in younger people as a result of injury or genetic predisposition. Cataracts cause the outward lens of the eye to cloud over, rendering vision clouded or foggy. In a cataract operation, an eye surgeon removes the clouded lens of the eye, and replaces it with a synthetic intraocular lens implant. Removal during a cataract operation is achieved either by breaking up the lens and suctioning it out of the eyeball, or slicing into the eye and lifting out the damaged lens in one piece.

The clouding effects of cataracts cannot be reversed. Once the eye’s lens loses focus, that focus is gone for good, and usually continues to deteriorate as time goes by. Prescription glasses can improve a cataract sufferer’s clarity of vision, but cannot usually eliminate the fog completely. The most effective cataract treatment is to actually remove the impaired lens of the eye. This is what happens in cataract surgery.

Not all cataracts are severe enough to warrant surgery. An ophthalmologist will usually recommend a cataract operation when cataracts in one or both eyes are profoundly affecting a patient’s quality of life. Cataracts are eye-specific, meaning that they can occur in one eye, but not the other. In older adults, particularly those over 60 years of age, it is common for cataracts to be in both eyes.


Cataract surgery, like most eye surgeries, is usually an out-patient procedure. The operation itself is not lengthy, often no more than 10 to 20 minutes. Recovery is what takes the longest.

A cataract operation begins with eye sedation, usually through eye drops or small injections into the area immediately surrounding the eye socket. The eye lids are sterilized, and the face is usually covered with a protective mask or sterile cloth. The eye surgeon will then remove the damaged eye lens through one of two methods.

The first method, known as phacoemulsification, is when the eye surgeon inserts a tiny probe into the lens of the eye, usually by making a small incision in the cornea, which sits on the eye’s surface. The probe emits ultrasonic waves that break apart the lens. The probe then suctions out all of the pieces of the lens.

In the second method, known as the extracapsular method, the cataract surgeon will make a larger incision into the cornea, which will allow for the removal of the lens in one piece. Once the lens is removed through either method, the surgeon will attach a synthetic lens known as an intraocular lens (IOL). The IOL is usually a clear plastic lens designed to mimic the shape of the damaged original. After the surgery, the cornea heals over the IOL, making it a permanent part of the eye. Unlike contact lenses, it cannot be removed without surgery, and requires no special care.

Cataract surgery is rarely done on both of a patient’s eyes at once. Usually patients must wait about a month after one cataract operation to undergo the second. Healing from a cataract operation can take anywhere from several days to several weeks. Recovery is often marked by swelling, pain, and continued blurred vision, often worse than it was with the cataract. As the eye adjusts, however, vision slowly improves until the blur is completely gone.


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