Table of Contents
Cataract surgery is one of the most common procedures performed around the world. Millions of people are affected by cloudy and blurry vision that is caused by cataracts that commonly develop with age.
Surgery is currently the only way to entirely remove cataracts from the eye. Cataracts are a progressive condition with symptoms that often go unnoticed initially, but they worsen over time. Nonsurgical treatment options offer ways to manage those symptoms before surgery is necessary.
These nonsurgical treatment options can effectively manage symptoms of cataracts, such as blurry vision, glare, and halos. Once surgery is needed, about 90 percent of people experience clearer vision following the procedure.
Scientists are investigating nonsurgical treatment options for cataracts. They are studying the causes of cataracts so treatment interventions, such as eye drops, can be developed as more affordable and accessible alternatives to cataract surgery.
Surgery is currently the only way to treat cataracts, but it is not recommended for everyone. For people with underlying or additional eye problems, cataract surgery may not be useful or effective until the other issues are addressed. For these people and others who wish to avoid surgery or do not yet need surgery, nonsurgical treatments can manage symptoms until surgery is warranted.
When Is Cataract Surgery Needed?
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, cataract surgery is one of the most common procedures performed around the world. Through both traditional and laser-assisted cataract surgery, the patient’s natural, now-cloudy lens is removed and replaced by a clear artificial lens.
With cataract surgery, lens types and surgery approaches vary. The outcome is clearer vision and an eye free of cataracts.
Cataract surgery can help people with cataracts achieve:
- A clear lens after having a cloudy lens.
- Clear vision, though they may still require reading glasses.
- The best possible vision for them without the need of glasses.
Surgery and lens options are recommended based on the patient’s vision goals. Speaking with your regular eye doctor and eye surgeon can help you determine if cataract surgery is the best way to address your vision problems and overall vision goals.
Nonsurgical Treatment Options
Although cataract surgery is widely recognized as safe and effective, it does not mean it is the right treatment approach for everyone. Until cataracts inhibit your vision enough that you can no longer do activities that you wish to do, surgery is usually not recommended. Once cataracts are a severe enough problem, surgery is currently the only way to remove them.
Here are tips for supporting your eye health once you know you have cataracts:
- Receive a comprehensive eye exam every year once you are over the age of 65. If you are younger, get an exam once every two years.
- Always protect your eyes from UV light by wearing sunglasses and a hat.
- If you smoke, quit, as it is a risk factor for cataracts.
- Stay on top of other health problems, particularly diabetes.
- Make sure your eyeglass or contact lens prescriptions are current.
Success Rates of Alternative Cataract Treatments
Nonsurgical cataract treatment options can be successful at minimizing the impact of cataracts and slowing their progression. However, they cannot make cataracts go away. The National Eye Institute (NEI) explains that surgery is the only way to get rid of cataracts.
Although surgery is ultimately the only treatment option for cataracts, NEI offers some home treatment options for managing cataracts early on.
- Use brighter lights at home and at work.
- Wear anti-glare sunglasses.
- Use magnifying lenses for reading and other activities that require up-close vision.
When you are no longer able to successfully manage your cataracts, surgery may be warranted. Your eye doctor is likely to recommend surgery if you can no longer do things like read, drive, or watch television.
Although many people wish to avoid surgery as long as possible, about 90 percent of people who receive cataract surgery can see more clearly following the surgery, reports NEI.
Research on Alternatives to Cataract Surgery
Although cataract surgery is currently the only treatment option for removing cataracts from the eye, scientists are working on nonsurgical alternatives. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst are collaborating with other scientists in order to revolutionize the treatment of cataracts and presbyopia.
Scientists have been studying the fundamentals of proteins in the lens of the eye in order to gain a better understanding about how light passes through the lens and is then scattered by proteins and biopolymers.
Cataracts form when molecules in the lens form clumps and light is not scattered properly onto the retina. By gaining a better understanding of how these clumps form and affect vision, scientists will hopefully be able to develop an approach to correct the problem.
NEI also supports research initiatives aimed at identifying the causes of cataracts, how to diagnose them earlier, and how to treat them better. One such study is working to reverse the progression of cataracts as well as prevent them from forming in the first place. Researchers hope to develop a nonsurgical treatment option that is less expensive, more accessible around the world, and poses fewer risks than traditional cataract surgery.
A 2015 animal study also investigated nonsurgical treatment approaches to cataracts. It studied the efficacy of eye drops to treat cloudy vision caused by cataracts. Researchers discovered that an organic compound, lanosterol, can help to dissolve the proteins that clump together and form cataracts.
In the study, lanosterol eye drops entirely cleared the vision of dogs with cataracts after six weeks of treatment. For people with moderate cataracts who do not have access to surgery, cannot afford traditional cataract surgery, or wish to pursue a nonsurgical treatment option, lanosterol eye drops may be a promising treatment. Such eye drops may even play a preventative role in stopping people who are at risk from developing cataracts in the first place.
Surgical vs. Nonsurgical Treatment for Cataracts
Currently, there are no permanent nonsurgical treatment options for cataracts. Surgery is the only way to entirely remove cataracts from your eye.
Nonsurgical treatment options exist to help manage the symptoms of cataracts, reduce their severity, and slow their progression. Additionally, surgical treatment of cataracts is not recommended for everyone.
If you have other eye conditions or a disease that is also impacting your vision, cataract surgery may not be recommended. In such cases, it is unlikely that cataract surgery will significantly improve your vision. Underlying eye problems must be addressed before cataract surgery can be considered.
If your vision is affected by cataracts, speak with your eye doctor about all of your treatment options. They can help you determine the severity of your cataracts, how you might be able to manage the symptoms, and if it is time for you to consider surgery.
Cataracts. (August 2019). National Eye Institute.
Cataract Diagnosis and Treatment. (October 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
First Nonsurgical Cataract Treatment Unveiled. (July 2015). Spectrum.
NEI Charts a Clearer Future for Cataract Prevention and Treatment. (June 2017). National Eye Institute.
New Research May Lead to Non-Surgical Cataract Treatment. (February 2017). Medical Xpress.
Traditional Cataract Surgery vs. Laser-Assisted Cataract Surgery. (August 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.