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Surgical Procedures for Cataracts

by Rick Alan

Every year about 1.4 million cataract operations are performed in the U.S., making it the most common operation in the country in people over age 65.

People sometimes wait to have cataract surgery until their eye condition causes them to:

  • Feel unsafe or uncomfortable
  • Be unable to perform normal daily tasks or activities such as:
    • Reading
    • Driving
    • Watching television
    • Taking medications

Today, however, some eye doctors and surgeons recommend not delaying having cataract surgery because cataract surgery is much safer and more successful than in the past. Delaying surgery may make the surgery more difficult to perform.

Cataract Surgery

Cataract surgery is usually done as an outpatient under local anesthesia and most often takes less than one hour. Most cataract surgeries involve removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial one.

There are two primary types of cataract removal surgery:

Phacoemulsification (Small Incision Cataract Surgery) - A tiny probe is inserted into the eye. The probe emits ultrasound waves that break up the cloudy lens into small fragments. The tiny pieces are then removed by suction. This is the most common form of cataract removal surgery. This surgery usually requires no stitches.

Extracapsular Surgery - An incision is made in the eye, and the hard center of the lens is removed. The remainder of the lens is removed by suction. This surgery usually requires stitches. However, these stitches can usually stay in the eye permanently.

In both types of surgery, local anesthesia is used so that you do not feel any pain. You will also likely be given a sedative to make you more comfortable.

In most cases, the removed lens is replaced by an intraocular lens (IOL). An IOL is a clear artificial lens. It requires no special care, and remains permanently in the eye. In some cases, an IOL cannot be used, usually due to surgical complications, unusual anatomy, or other eye diseases. In these cases, either a contact lens or eyeglasses that provide very powerful magnification are used after the surgery to correct the vision.


American Academy of Ophthalmology

Current Surgical Diagnosis and Treatment, 10th edition. Appleton & Lange;1994.

National Eye Institute

Last reviewed October 2004 by Kimberly Rask, MD, PhD

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