Get the facts on cataracts

2017-02-22 06:00

One sometimes hears that a person has had his or her cataracts scraped off or removed. Sometimes people describe a cataract as a membrane growing over the eye. What are cataracts really?

To better understand cataracts, we first have to look at the anatomy of the eye and more specifically at the lens.

We are all born with natural lenses on the inside of our eyes. Every eye has one lens and this lens looks a lot like a Smartie (the small, round chocolate sweets) – about the same size and shape. The lens is positioned behind the iris – the iris is the brown, blue or green coloured part of the eye. The lens is completely translucent and crystal clear. Light enters the eye through the pupil and moves right through the lens to the inside of the eye. Inside the eye, the light falls on the retina (a thin film lining the inside of the eye like wallpaper). As soon as light falls on the retina, one becomes aware that you are “seeing” something.

The lens is responsible for bringing light rays entering the eye sharply into focus on the retina.

Surely you must have seen before how a glass of water fresh from the tap sometimes looks limy and is half opaque. After a while, the lime sinks to the bottom and the water is crystal clear again. When cataracts develop, basically exactly the opposite process takes place and it takes place in the lens.

Imagine that a crystal clear glass of water slowly becomes more limy and opaque. This is exactly what happens to our lenses when we grow older – our lenses slowly become more limy and opaque.

A lens which is dull and opaque is known as a cataract. Cataract formation, just like wrinkles, is a natural process which will affect us all. Certain diseases, medication and diseases of the eye may cause cataracts to develop earlier.

So what happens when our lenses become limy? As the lens slowly becomes duller, it allows less light to enter the eye and the light entering the eye is of a poor quality. It causes the eyes of people who have cataracts to weaken.

Cataracts may start to develop in your fifties. It slowly becomes worse and worse and most persons only start experiencing symptoms in their late sixties.

Symptoms of cataracts include increasing blurred vision, halos forming around lights at night, light sensitivity during the day, increasing short-sightedness, colours becoming duller and brighter light bein needed to be able to read.

Unfortunately there are no eye-drops, pills or spectacles that can cure cataracts. At this stage, the only hope is an operation.

Fortunately medical technology has greatly developed during the past 50 years and together with it also the technology for cataract surgery.

Nowadays almost all cataracts can be surgically removed by a technique known as phacoemulsification, where the cataract is sucked out through a small opening in the eye (less than 3 mm). A new, pliable plastic lens is then injected through the same opening.

In this way the patient’s vision is totally restored, given that there are no other problems with the eye.

Cataract operations are usually carried out as a day procedure. It can mostly be done under local anaesthetic, thus avoiding the risks of general anaesthetic.

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