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Monday Medical: Cataracts — From cloudy to clear


Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

If you have cloudy, blurred vision or difficulty driving at night, you might have cataracts.

Dr. Nathan Hamburger, an ophthalmologist in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, outlines what you need to know about this common condition below.

What are cataracts?

“A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye, which is the part of the eye that focuses light,” Hamburger said. “Having a cataract is like looking through a dirty window.”

The condition is caused by a natural breakdown of proteins in the eye. It’s a process everyone eventually experiences.

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“The protein breakdown starts as soon as you’re born, but it usually doesn’t become a problem until your 50s or 60s — the second half of life,” Hamburger said.

People who have diabetes or are on chronic steroids for asthma or other conditions may develop cataracts sooner.

Loss of contrast, blurry or hazy vision, difficulty driving at night or dealing with glare during the day, colors that look off and a prescription for glasses or contacts that needs to be updated more frequently can all signal the buildup of cataracts.

“Patients will say, ‘My prescription has been the same for 10 years, and now I need new glasses every two years,’” Hamburger said. “That happens because the cataracts are growing and further affecting vision.”

A diagnosis is made with a routine eye exam, in which the eyes are dilated and a doctor can examine the lenses.

How are they treated?

While there isn’t a nonsurgical treatment for cataracts, there is a silver-lining: cataract surgery is quick and easy.

“It’s generally a very successful surgery and has very low rates of complications,” Hamburger said. “It’s an outpatient surgery that takes about 15 to 20 minutes.”

The eye is numbed, then the cataract is removed with ultrasound. Two microscopic incisions are then made in the eye, and a new plastic lens is implanted.

“The lens we implant has the ability to correct vision,” Hamburger said. “Oftentimes, we’ll be able to get patients to where they don’t need glasses after surgery, especially for distance.”

If both eyes need cataract surgery, the surgeries are done one to two weeks apart.

“I tell patients they’re going to look at a light, feel a little pressure, feel cool water on their face, and that’s it,” Hamburger said.

Visual recovery can be as quick as a day, but usually takes a few days. Sometimes, it extends to a couple of weeks.

During that time, patients can use their eye as they normally would, but should not rub it.

“Generally speaking, it’s good for life,” Hamburger said. “In rare cases, additional surgery may be needed.”

Sometimes, a patient will form a secondary cataract on their new lens, but that can be removed in the ophthalmologist’s office with a laser and does not return.

How will I know it’s time for cataract surgery?

“It’s a decision made on a patient-by-patient basis,” Hamburger said.

For instance, someone who has moderate cataracts and mild symptoms will usually be advised to check back in a year. But mild cataracts that are negatively impacting a patient’s vision will likely be removed.

It’s best to have advanced cataracts taken out sooner rather than later, as cataracts can become more difficult to remove as they mature.

Whenever you find yourself dealing with cataracts, remember that you’re not alone.

“It’s one of the most commonly performed surgeries in the United States,” Hamburger said. “If you live long enough, there’s a very good change you’re going to need cataract surgery.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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