It can take a while for cataract symptoms to noticeably affect your vision, and sometimes even longer before everyday fixes like contacts and eyeglasses stop being helpful. But once cataracts begin to affect your daily life, it’s time to consider surgery.

But you might be wondering: What exactly does cataract surgery involve? Does insurance or Medicare cover cataract surgery? Are there any possible complications to be aware of? And how long does it take to recover from cataract surgery?

Below, we help answer all these questions and more.

What is cataract surgery?

As you may know, a cataract is a cloudy area that forms in the natural lens of your eye. Cataract surgery removes the cataract-affected lens using either a laser or manual incision, and in most cases, replaces it with what’s called an intraocular lens implant (IOL).

IOLs are artificial lenses that can work just like natural ones. But depending on whether you’re nearsighted or farsighted, the type of lens you choose and certain other factors, you may still need corrective glasses after surgery for things like reading, texting or using a computer.

Just like glasses and contact lenses, there are different types of artificial lenses, including some that are considered “premium lenses.” Your doctor can help you choose which may be the best for you.

How is cataract surgery done?

First, your doctor will place drops in your eye to dilate your pupil and numb the area with a local anesthetic. Depending on the type of surgery that will be performed you may be given a sedative to help you relax, or you may be given anesthesia.

Next, your doctor will use specialized instruments to remove the cataract-affected lens and replace it with a new, artificial lens.

After cataract surgery your vision may be a little blurry as your eye(s) heal and adjust. It’s nothing to worry about and you should notice improvements in your vision after a few days and be completely healed in about eight weeks. It’s also important to schedule follow-up appointments with your doctor so they can monitor your recovery and track your progress.

What are the different types of cataract surgery?

The two main types of cataract surgery are phacoemulsification and extracapsular cataract extraction. Your doctor can explain the differences and help you decide which option is the best for you.

Phacoemulsification is a procedure where a tiny probe that transmits ultrasound waves is used to break up the cataract. It is the most common type of cataract surgery.

Extracapsular cataract extraction is a procedure that makes an incision in the eye and extracts the cataract in one piece. This cataract removal procedure is less common and normally done for people who have certain eye complications.

What are the different types of lenses for cataract surgery?

Depending on whether you’re a good candidate for premium lenses, your options may include:

  • Monofocal IOLs are the most commonly used artificial lenses – particularly in patients who have cataracts in both eyes. This type of lens has one focusing distance, which means you can choose between IOLs that give you clear vision up close, at a distance or in between. If you choose this type of lens, you’ll need to wear glasses for certain activities.
  • Multifocal or accommodating IOLs are premium lenses that allow you to focus at both near and far distances, but each does so in a slightly different way. Multifocal IOLs have set focusing powers for different distances, while accommodating IOLs change shape depending on what your eyes are trying to do. While these types of lenses require some adjustment for your brain, they’re becoming increasingly popular.
  • Toric IOLs are premium lenses that are specifically designed to help those who have both cataracts and astigmatism. Astigmatism is an abnormal curve of the surface corneal lens that can cause blurry vision at all distances.
    •  For certain kinds of astigmatism, a specific kind of surgery called Femto laser-assisted cataract surgery (FLACS) may also be an option as a premium treatment.

Premium IOLs and FLACS are not covered by insurance, which means you’ll need to pay out of pocket.

How long does cataract surgery take?

Although your total time at the clinic may be a couple of hours, the actual cataract surgery time can be as little as 20 minutes. Cataract surgeries are typically done in outpatient settings, so once it’s done and you’ve had some time to rest, you’ll be able to go home.

What to expect after cataract surgery

Before you go home, a member of your care team will check in with you and provide any immediate care that you need. They will review the recovery process with you as well – possible complications, how to care for your eye, what activities and actions to avoid, and so on. Following surgery, you may experience:

  • Watery eyes, mild irritation and some blurry vision
  • Drowsiness, dizziness or weakness the day of and the day after surgery
  • An upset stomach, vomiting and fatigue due to the medication you received during surgery
  • A low-grade fever – lower than 101°F (38°C)

Is cataract surgery painful?

No, cataract surgery isn’t painful. Before the surgery starts, you’ll be given numbing eye drops or a topical anesthesia to numb your eye. You may feel a slight stinging sensation when the drops are placed in your eye but after that you won’t feel anything more than a light pressure or tightness.

Can cataract surgery be done on both eyes at once?

Because it’s so common to have cataracts in both eyes, we get this question a lot. There is a procedure for same-day cataract surgery in both eyes called simultaneous (or sequential) bilateral cataract surgery. But treating both eyes for cataracts at the same time is not recommended by most doctors.

A full recovery from cataract surgery can take several weeks and your vision won’t be 100% during that time. If you need cataracts removed from both eyes, your doctor will wait until your first eye has recovered to schedule surgery for the second. This will ensure that you can give your eyes the best care during recovery with minimal interruptions to your day-to-day life. Your doctor can also observe how the first eye reacts to the procedure to achieve an even better outcome for the second eye.

How much does cataract surgery cost?

Both Medicare and private insurance should cover standard cataract surgery. Both may require a vision test to verify just how much the cataracts are impacting your vision, and you may still have some out-of-pocket costs, even if you’re covered. And again, the type of lens you choose can have an impact on cost and insurance coverage.
So, the best thing to do is get in touch with your insurance provider to get details on your coverage.

How much does cataract surgery cost with Medicare?

Again, several factors like the type of surgery you have and the type of plan you have will determine how much out-of-pocket costs you’ll be responsible for.

How much does cataract surgery cost without insurance?

On average, an uninsured cataract surgery can cost around $6,800 per eye. Of course, there are many factors that can affect the actual price, such as where you live, where you choose to have your surgery, and so on.

What are the possible complications from cataract surgery?

Since cataracts are very common, cataract surgery is, too. Millions of surgeries are performed in the United States every year. And although the likelihood of complications during and after surgery are low, like any surgery, there are some risks involved with cataract removal.

Possible complications can include swelling, infection or bleeding, issues with glare, changes in eye pressure, IOL dislocation or retinal detachment.

How long does it take to recover from cataract surgery?

Usually, the cataract surgery recovery time is about 6-8 weeks. Most people are usually allowed to return to their regular activities the day after their surgery, but there are some exceptions.

What activities should be avoided after cataract surgery?

Swimming, lifting weights and other strenuous activities should be avoided for several weeks. This includes lifting objects heavier than 15 pounds.

Caring for your eye during recovery will require some attention to detail. You may use antibiotic eye drops to prevent infection, regular eye drops to soothe irritation, and acetaminophen for pain, as directed by your doctor.

You also need to avoid anything, including water, getting in your eye. For the first week or so after surgery, you’ll need to wear a plastic shield over your eye at night, to prevent anything from getting in it as you shift around in your sleep.

Can you drive after cataract surgery?

No. You’ll need to arrange for transportation home after your surgery. It’s usually recommended that you not drive for at least 24 hours following surgery, but your doctor will give you specific instructions to ensure your safety.

Getting the full picture

Cataract symptoms can be managed for a long time, but the only effective way to treat cataracts is through surgery. Whether you’re still trying to manage your cataracts or are ready to be rid of them, talking to a cataract expert can help you make an informed decision about what to do next. Start by making a cataract appointment with an eye specialist.