The duration of eye surgeries depends in part on the nature of the condition and the degree of vision loss.
LASIK surgery can take as little as 10 minutes for each eye. (Learn More) Cataract surgery can take about 20 minutes, but if cataracts are present in both eyes, the surgeries will be staggered. (Learn More)
Diabetic retinopathy surgeries can be longer, sometimes requiring multiple operations to heal the damage in the blood vessels in the retina caused by high blood sugar levels. (Learn More)
How Long is LASIK Surgery?
LASIK eye surgery is a treatment that permanently changes the shape of the clear covering on the eye (the cornea). People get LASIK to improve their vision, to the point where they may no longer need glasses or contact lenses, or they can use their vision aids significantly less.
LASIK surgery takes less than 1 - 10 minutes for each eye, depending on a few factors. With advanced laser technology, it can take only 30 to 60 seconds for the laser to do its work. Older technologies often take longer, depending on the patient’s prescription and the amount of correction needed.
The first step of LASIK surgery is the surgeon giving the patient numbing drops, to anesthetize the patient so they don’t feel any pain or involuntarily blink. Patients will still feel pressure on their eye from the device that holds their eyelids open.
Then, the surgeon makes a microscopic incision into the surface of the eye (the cornea) with a laser that pulses at one-quadrillionth of a second. This part takes just a few seconds.
When the incision is complete, the surgeon lifts the newly cut flap in the cornea to give access so the laser can permanently cut away the pieces of tissue that are responsible for the vision problems. The flap is then put back in position, where it acts as a natural bandage, covering the cornea as it recovers from the procedure.
One reason LASIK eye surgery is so popular is that it is a long-term solution and it's an easy, short surgery. Reshaping the cornea to address farsightedness or nearsightedness is often a lifelong change, and the benefits to vision may last for the rest of the patient’s life.
How Long is Cataract Surgery?
As people get older, they may notice that their vision becomes foggier or blurrier, making it difficult to read text, drive at night, or even play golf. This is often the fault of cataracts.
As the eye ages (around 40 years old, but also possible before), the natural proteins on the eye become inactive and break down, covering the lens and making vision appear foggy. A family history of cataracts or an unhealthy lifestyle can also contribute to their development.
For cataracts, the time of the surgery itself is just about 20 minutes. It begins by a surgeon numbing the eye and then making two tiny cuts (a matter of millimeters) in the cornea. The doctor injects a thick solution of natural chemicals, which the body would produce on its own, into the cornea. This helps the cornea maintain its shape and internal pressure during the procedure. Then, a high-frequency ultrasound device or a laser breaks up the clusters of protein that are causing the unclear vision into smaller pieces.
The doctor will then use suction to carefully remove the fragments. After this, they will inject a little more of the natural solution to keep the lens capsule open and to make room for the new, artificial lens. The lens is placed snugly behind the iris and pupil. The chemical solution is drained, the incision will heal by itself, and the patient will have to cover their healthy eye with an eyepatch to give their recovering eye a chance to process its newly clear vision.
Recovery time can be as quick as a few days to a week. If both eyes need cataract surgery, then the surgeries will be staggered (one eye at a time) to give the patient’s eyes a chance to heal. There will be follow-up appointments two months after the surgery, so the ophthalmologist can check to see that the eyes are healing as they should.
Even if the cataracts are gone, the patient might still need prescription lenses to correct vision problems. This will be determined at the follow-up appointments.
Diabetic retinopathy is a condition that develops when people who have diabetes have high enough levels of blood sugar that this pressure damages the blood vessels in the retina. The affected vessels can swell or even leak, preventing blood from passing through. The blood sugar can also cause abnormal blood vessels to grow on the retina. All the effects of diabetic retinopathy can cause vision loss.
For diabetic retinopathy, a doctor will first use eye drops to widen the pupils, allowing for a better examination of the eyes. The drops will cause vision to be blurry, and this should wear off after a few hours.
Dilating the pupils in this way helps the doctor look for swelling in the retina, abnormal blood vessels, bleeding in the center of the eye, or retinal detachment, all of which can be directly addressed by surgery.
If the diabetic retinopathy is advanced — that is, it is proliferative diabetic retinopathy or macular edema — then fast surgery is required. Depending on the degree of the problem, different kinds of laser treatment will be used. In most cases, the procedures can be done at a doctor’s office or an eye clinic in a single session. The length of the treatment depends greatly on individual cases.
Photocoagulation is one such laser treatment. Also known as focal laser treatment, it can impede the leakage of blood in the eye. If the patient had a macular edema that was causing blurry vision, photocoagulation might not completely remove the blurriness, but it will likely ensure that the blurriness will not get worse.
Panretinal photocoagulation can also be done in a doctor’s office, but it will need two or more sessions. With panretinal photocoagulation, the laser can shrink abnormal blood vessels in the eye. Vision will continue to be blurry for a day or so after the procedure.
Unfortunately, there is usually some deterioration in night vision or peripheral vision after the surgery. But the sooner the surgery is done, the better the chance of protecting the eyes from further vision loss.
There are many other types of eye surgeries for all the different ailments that can afflict the eye. For most of them, the length of the surgeries depends on the degree of the condition or the severity of vision loss.
In all cases, however, even if the surgery itself is relatively quick (thanks to advancements in technology and computing, specifically the use of lasers in nearly all forms of eye surgery), postoperative care (such as applying eye drops, resting, using protective lenses, and attending follow-up appointments) can last for days, weeks, or even months.
Ask the Doctor: How Long Does LASIK Last? (May 2016). American Refractive Surgery Council.
What Are Cataracts? (October 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
What to Expect from Cataract Surgery? (September 2019). WebMD.
What Are Cataracts? (March 2020). Very Well Health.
What is Diabetic Retinopathy? (September 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Surgical Management of Diabetic Retinopathy. (March 2009). Review of Ophthalmology.
Surgical Management of Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy. (September 2018). Retinal Physician.
Diabetic Retinopathy Diagnosis and Treatment. (September 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Surgical Management of Diabetic Retinopathy. (Oct-Dec 2013). Middle East African Journal of Ophthalmology.