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What an eye doctor wishes Canadians knew about cataract surgery

Three weeks. For three weeks after having cataract surgery on both of his eyes, 66-year-old Eric Sunstrum of Ottawa was still reaching for his glasses at his bedside.

“But then,” he says, “I realized I didn’t need them. I could see crystal clear when driving or reading. I’ve worn glasses for 50 years, so that surgery was a life-changer.”

Eric Sunstrum. [Provided by Alcon Canada]

More than 2.5 million Canadians live with cataracts, according to the Canadian Journal of Ophthalmology. Over 500,000 people have cataract procedures performed every year in Canada, yet a 2021 survey commissioned by Alcon Canada revealed that almost two-thirds of Canadian seniors aged 55 to 79 say they know very little or nothing about cataracts.

Cataract surgery is the only way to restore vision from cataracts. In many cases, however, as in Sunstrum’s, the surgery can profoundly affect the quality of the patient’s vision — and life.

“Today you have options available to you to really restore exceptional vision. It’s not just about clearing up a bit of haze,” says Dr. Heather O’Donnell, an ophthalmologist based in Vancouver.

In partnership with Alcon Canada, one of the world’s largest vision and eye care companies, we ask Dr. O’Donnell what she wishes Canadians knew about this common procedure.

Cataracts are a painless clouding of the lens in your eye that increasingly blurs your vision over time. They’re a common part of aging, though they can also be brought on by other conditions. Many people experience both cataracts and presbyopia, which affects the eye’s ability to focus on close objects, as they get older.

“The primary type of cataracts we remove are caused by age. But depending on genetics and environmental factors, they can certainly occur earlier,” says O’Donnell, noting that factors such as UV exposure, smoking, steroids for autoimmune diseases and more can also precipitate the development of cataracts. The condition can be identified and monitored through yearly eye examinations.

READ MORE: Cataracts don’t just happen in older populations — younger people get them too

Cataracts can only be treated with surgery. The minimally invasive procedure involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial intraocular lens (IOL). “I tell patients the eyeball works like a camera, with the lens in the front and the film in the back,” O’Donnell says.

The surgery is a short procedure done in-hospital or in a surgical suite under topical anesthetic, and is often complete in 30 minutes. The surgeon makes a tiny incision — less than three millimetres — in the front clear window of the eye to remove the cloudy lens, then implants the IOL.

Depending on the type of IOL a patient chooses, the artificial lens can help not only with cataracts but other vision complaints, such as presbyopia or nearsightedness. Patients can speak with their eye doctor to discuss their vision goals post-surgery and figure out which IOL would best suit their lifestyle.

Post-operative patients wear a clear shield over their eye as protection and use eye drops relatively frequently for the first week, after which their use tapers off.

“The recovery is very quick,” O’Donnell says, adding that typically, by a week after surgery, patients’ vision is mostly recovered to where it’s going to be in a post-operative state.

A 2015 study noted other positive outcomes to the surgery, and subsequent research has indicated that having cataracts removed can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and improve sleep quality. Some patients even walked faster after having cataract surgery.

O’Donnell says Canadians should consider talking to their physician about having it done sooner than people have historically.

“One common misconception is that patients have to wait until they’re very visually impaired before cataracts are taken out. Vision is about colours, contrasts and depth of focus, so when cataracts really affect your vision — not completely impair it — that’s the time to get them taken out,” she says. “Cataracts are an amazing opportunity to regain your function and really restore the quality of your vision with multiple distances and multiple features.”

READ MORE: Have an eye emergency? Find out where you can go to get help

Learn more about cataracts, treatment and choices for artificial lenses, and take the self-assessment quiz at the See the Full Picture website.

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