A cataract is a progressive eye disorder in which the lens becomes increasingly cloudy and stiff. This clouding blocks the passage of light to the back of the eyeball, causing a painless deterioration of vision. Cataracts are a normal but not inevitable part of aging, affecting more than half of all Americans over the age of 65. In rare cases, babies are born with congenital cataracts. A number of environmental factors increase the risk of developing this disorder, including exposure to X-rays, infrared radiation, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Smoking is implicated in 20 percent of all cataract cases in the United States. Research indicates that the damage is caused by a substance inhaled in tobacco smoke that is transported to the eye through the blood stream, rather than the exposure of the eye to airborne smoke.

Diagnostic Studies And Procedures

Blurred, dimmed, or double vision and a frequent need for a new eyeglass prescription usually raise a suspicion of cataracts. The individual may also be aware of seeing a scattering of light beams in the glare from a spotlight, headlights, or the sun. An ophthalmologist or optometrist can easily detect an incipient cataract during a routine eye examination. The diagnosis is confirmed by dilating the pupil with eye drops and then directing an intense, narrowly focused light ray onto various parts of the retina. The extent of a cataract’s effect on vision depends on its size and location.

Medical Treatments

There is no medicine that can cure or dissolve cataracts; instead, they are treated surgically. However, cataract surgery has become so routine today, it is often done on an outpatient basis. In general, the operation is not performed until cataracts are interfering with normal activities such as reading, driving, and working Any person whose job requires keen eyesight may undergo their removal sooner than one whose life style or work demands less of the eyes. If a person has cataracts in both eyes, the eye that has less vision will be corrected first, and when healing is complete, the second one will be dealt with.

There are three major methods for removing cataracts:

  • Extrawpsular surgery, in which the lens is removed except for the back half of its outer covering, or capsule.
  • Phacoemulsification, a variation of extracapsular surgery in which only the core of the lens is removed after breaking it up with ultrasound.
  • Intracapsular, in which the entire lens and its capsule are removed.

In most cases, the lens is replaced by a plastic disc, or intraocular lens, inserted into the capsule. The artificial lens is a permanent implant, though occasionally it becomes clouded and has to be replaced. Other alternatives include a removable contact lens, or special eyeglasses created for this purpose. Recovery from the operation itself takes no more than a day or so, but becoming used to the new lens requires more time. Some people adjust in only a few weeks, while others may need as much as several months.

Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies cannot cure cataracts, but some may help resolve their underlying causes. For example, behavior modification therapies, such as hypnosis, biofeedback training, and even acupuncture, are often helpful to smokers who want to quit. More direct alternative approaches may include:

Herbal Medicine

A traditional Chinese formula known as hachimijiogan is said to contain ingredients that protect the eye against the formation of cataracts and to slow their progress when they begin to appear. The preparation, which is used mostly in China and japan, is taken in daily oral doses.

Naturopathy and Nutrition Therapy

Practitioners may recommend supplements of selenium, vitamin E, and beta carotene (precursor to vitamin A), anti oxidants that prevent tissue damage from oxygen metabolism-a factor in the development of cataracts. Studies indicate that supplements are of limited benefit, but increasing intake of food sources yellow, orange, and dark green vegetables, whole grain cereals and breads, and legumes may help.

Self Treatment

In the early stages of a cataract’s development, simple measures such as improved lighting and new prescription glasses permit many patients to perform most everyday tasks. Other self help measures include:

  • Wearing sunglasses whenever there is enough sunlight to cause a sunburn. When choosing nonprescription sun glasses, look for a label indicating that the lenses block out 100 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
  • Wearing protective goggles or eye­wear to prevent eye injuries, especially if your job is risky, such as arc welding or sand blasting.
  • Wearing protective glasses if you are a health care professional exposed either to laser beams or infrared radiation.
  • Stopping smoking, whatever your age, you will protect not only your eyes but also your general health.

Other Causes of Cataracts

Uveitis, a chronic eye inflammation, can cause cataracts at a young age, so too can diabetes and the long term use of corticosteroid medications.