Cataracts | Surgery

Today, cataract removal is generally performed as an outpatient procedure under local or topical anesthesia. After undergoing mild sedation, you will be very comfortable and feel no pain. Typically, you will arrive at the hospital two hours prior to the procedure. You will be allowed to leave after a period of observation following the procedure, which usually takes 15 to 45 minutes.

To remove the cataract (clouded lens), the physician will use a technique called phacoemulsification (phaco). The doctor will make a tiny, 1/8-inch incision and insert a small phaco probe. The probe will break apart the clouded lens and remove it.

Next, an intraocular lens (IOL) will be inserted through the same tiny incision, into the lens capsule of the eye. Because this procedure is performed through an incision that is very small, your eye will be able to heal rapidly with little or no discomfort.


Following the procedure, you will be allowed to return home after an hour or so. Vision is generally blurry the day of surgery due to medication placed on the surface of the eye. In most cases, the vision is improved the day after surgery and usually continues to improve in the weeks following the procedure.

Keep in mind that lens implants have been in use for about 50 years to treat cataracts. Over 14.2 million cataract and lens implant procedures are now performed each year worldwide.

You will be asked to return the next day after surgery for a post operative visit, then one week later and again in one month. Your doctor will discuss the need for any future follow-up appointments with you at that time.

Frequently asked questions about cataracts

Is cataract surgery performed with a laser?
No. Most surgeons today use an ultrasound probe. The probe vibrates, breaks apart the cataract, and removes the pieces from the eye. This process is called phacoemulsification.

Can I expect a rapid recovery?
Today's surgeries are performed with the smallest possible incision to speed the recovery of vision and reduce the restrictions on your activities after surgery.

What if my medical history or current medication prevents me from considering an injection of local anesthesia?
Today, anesthesia may also be administered topically. This means, in most cases, no injection is required. The medication numbs the eye without the need for an injection.

How soon after surgery will I be able to see?
In some instances, you will be able to see immediately following surgery, although most people experience clearer vision the day following surgery. The vision tends to continue to improve further in the first few weeks of the postoperative period.

If I wear corrective eyeglasses or contact lenses before cataract surgery, can I expect improved vision and restored sight?
Today's cataract surgery is safer, and the visual outcomes better, than ever before. This is due to developments such as smaller incisions, newer technology intraocular lenses (IOLs), and advanced calculations to aid in picking the correct lens implant power. Today's lens implants can also offer multifunctional vision. Many patients can enjoy a better quality of life with independence from glasses. Depending on the lens implant chosen, vision can be corrected for distance, intermediate, near, and certain amounts of astigmatism. Please see the section on lens implants.

What is the cost of cataract surgery?
Medicare benefits generally apply to cataract surgery for people 65 or older. Other insurance policies typically provide coverage as well. To find out about your coverage, you should contact Medicare, your insurance company and/or your doctor. Should you choose a specialty lens implant, there may be an out of pocket expense. Please see the section on lens implants.

For more information on cataract surgery in the St. Louis area through Washington University Physicians or to make an appointment, please call 314-996-3300.

Images courtesy of National Eye Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health

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