Cataract surgery is by far the most common operation performed by ophthalmologists in Australia, with more than 200,000 procedures occurring annually.

A cataract is a painless clouding of the lens inside your eye. Cataracts usually develop over a long period of time. If left untreated, the lens will eventually become so clouded that it’s impossible to see any detail at all, although you will always be able to see some light.

Removing the cloudy lens and putting a new lens inside your eye is the only permanent remedy. Cataracts are usually removed using a technique called phacoemulsification.

The most common type of artificial lens used is a monofocal lens (a lens that can only focus at one distance) but other lenses are available that can focus on both near and distant objects (these are not suitable for all patients).

Cataracts can occur in one or both eyes. If you have cataracts in both eyes, typically the time period between procedures is between one and four weeks.

What are the alternatives?

So far, no medication or diet has been found to slow down the growth of cataracts and there is no medication that can clear a clouded lens. Removing the cloudy lens and putting a new lens inside your eye is the only way to improve or restore your vision.

Preparing for cataract surgery

Cataract surgery is usually undertaken as a day case. This means you have the procedure and go home the same day.

The operation is usually under local anaesthesia. This completely blocks the pain from the eye and you will (most likely) stay awake during the procedure. The local anaesthetic is usually given in the form of eye drops but sometimes it is given as an injection. You also be given and intravenous sedative. This relieves anxiety and helps you to relax during the procedure.

Less commonly, cataract surgery is done under general anaesthesia. This means you will be asleep during the operation.

At the hospital, your nurse will explain how you will be cared for during your stay. Your nurse may check your heart rate and blood pressure.

Your nurse will place drops in your eye to widen (dilate) your pupil and relax the muscles in your eye. This makes it easier for your surgeon to examine your eye and remove the lens.

What happens during cataract surgery?

The operation usually takes approximately 30 minutes.

Your anaesthetist will place you on a comfortable surgical trolley. He or she will instil local anaesthetic eye drops into your eye and insert an intravenous cannula in your arm.

Once the anaesthetic has taken effect, your surgeon will make a tiny cut on the surface of your eye. You won’t be able to see out of your eye as its being treated, but you may be aware of light and movement. There will be no pain.

Your surgeon will put some fluid into your eye and use ultrasound to break up the cloudy lens. You may hear a soft buzzing sound as the sensor releases sound waves to break up the lens.