(For developmental or congenital cataracts, see Eye Defects and Conditions in Children: Congenital Cataract.)
A cataract is a congenital or degenerative opacity of the lens. The main symptom is gradual, painless vision blurring. Diagnosis is by ophthalmoscopy and slit-lamp examination. Treatment is surgical removal and placement of an intraocular lens.
Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. In the US, almost 20% of people aged 65 to 74 have cataracts that interfere with vision.
Lens opacity can develop in several locations:
Cataracts occur with aging. Other risk factors may include the following:
Many people have no risk factors other than age. Some cataracts are congenital, associated with numerous syndromes and diseases.
Symptoms and Signs
Cataracts usually develop slowly over years. Early symptoms may be loss of contrast, glare (ie, halos and starbursts around lights, not photophobia), needing more light to see well, and problems distinguishing dark blue from black. Painless blurring eventually occurs. The degree of blurring depends on the location and extent of the opacity. Double vision or ghost images occur rarely.
With a nuclear cataract, distance vision worsens. Near vision may improve in the early stages because of changes in the refractive index of the lens; presbyopic patients may be temporarily able to read without glasses (second sight).
A posterior subcapsular cataract disproportionately affects vision because the opacity is located at the crossing point of incoming light rays. Such cataracts reduce visual acuity more when the pupil constricts (eg, in bright light, during reading). They are also the type most likely to cause loss of contrast as well as glare, especially from bright lights or from car headlights while driving at night.
Rarely, the cataract swells, occluding the trabecular drainage meshwork and causing secondary closed-angle glaucoma and pain.
Diagnosis is best made with the pupil dilated. Well-developed cataracts appear as gray, white, or yellow-brown opacities in the lens. Examination of the red reflex through the dilated pupil with the ophthalmoscope held about 30 cm away usually discloses subtle opacities. Small cataracts stand out as dark defects in the red reflex. A large cataract may obliterate the red reflex. Slit-lamp examination provides more details about the character, location, and extent of the opacity.
Frequent refractions and corrective lens prescription changes may help maintain useful vision during cataract development. Occasionally, long-term pupillary dilation (with phenylephrine 2.5% q 4 to 8 h) is helpful for small centrally located cataracts. Indirect lighting while reading minimizes pupillary constriction and may optimize vision for close tasks.
Usual indications for surgery include the following:
Far less common indications include cataracts that cause glaucoma or that obscure the fundus in patients who need periodic fundus examinations for management of diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. There is no advantage to removing a cataract early.
Cataract extraction is usually done using a topical or local anesthetic and IV sedation. There are 3 extraction techniques. In intracapsular cataract extraction, the cataract and lens capsule are removed in one piece; this technique is rarely used. In extracapsular cataract extraction, the hard central nucleus is removed in one piece and then the soft cortex is removed in multiple small pieces. In phacoemulsification, the hard central nucleus is dissolved by ultrasound and then the soft cortex is removed in multiple small pieces. Phacoemulsification uses the smallest incision, thus enabling the fastest healing, and is usually the preferred procedure. In extracapsular extraction (including phacoemulsification), the lens capsule is not removed.
A plastic or silicone lens is almost always implanted intraocularly to replace the optical focusing power of the removed crystalline lens. The lens implant is usually placed on or within the lens capsule (posterior chamber lens). The lens can also be placed in front of the iris (anterior chamber lens) or attached to the iris and within the pupil (iris plane lens). Iris plane lenses are rarely used in the US because many designs led to a high frequency of postoperative complications. Multifocal intraocular lenses are newer and have different focusing zones that may reduce dependence on glasses after surgery. Patients occasionally experience glare with these lenses, especially under low-light conditions, and also have problems with reduced contrast sensitivity.
In most cases, a tapering schedule of topical antibiotics (eg, moxifloxacin 0.5% 1 drop qid) and topical corticosteroids (eg, prednisolone acetate 1% 1 drop qid) is used for up to 4 wk postsurgery. Patients often wear an eye shield while sleeping and should avoid the Valsalva maneuver, heavy lifting, excessive forward bending, and eye rubbing for several weeks.
Major complications of cataract surgery are rare. Complications include the following:
After surgery, vision returns to 20/40 (6/12) or better in 95% of eyes if there are no preexisting disorders such as amblyopia, retinopathy, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. If an intraocular lens is not implanted, contact lenses or thick glasses are needed to correct the resulting hyperopia.
Many ophthalmologists recommend ultraviolet-coated eyeglasses or sunglasses as a preventive measure. Reducing risk factors such as alcohol, tobacco, and corticosteroids and controlling blood glucose in diabetes delay onset. A diet high in vitamin C, vitamin A, and carotenoids (contained in vegetables such as spinach and kale) may protect against cataracts.
Last full review/revision August 2012 by Kathryn Colby, MD, PhD