Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Surgical Procedures for Cataracts

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Cataract surgery is a common operation, especially in people over age 65.

Cataract surgery is usually done as an elective procedure for visual problems. People sometimes wait to have the procedure until their eye condition causes them to:

  • Feel unsafe or uncomfortable
  • Be unable to perform normal daily tasks or activities such as:
    • Reading
    • Driving
    • Watching television
    • Taking medications

Today, however, some eye doctors and surgeons recommend not delaying cataract surgery. The surgery is much safer and more successful than in the past. Delaying surgery may make the surgery more difficult to perform. However, a cataract rarely causes an emergency, so you should not have surgery until you feel comfortable doing so.

Cataract surgery may also be recommended when a cataract interferes with the treatment of another eye problem, such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, or diabetic retinopathy.

Cataract Surgery

Cataract surgery is usually done as an outpatient under local anesthesia. Surgery usually takes less than one hour. Most cataract surgeries involve removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial one.

There are 2 primary types of cataract removal surgery:

  • Phacoemulsification (small incision cataract surgery)—A tiny probe is inserted into the eye. The probe emits ultrasound waves that break up the cloudy lens into small fragments, and then suction removes these fragments. This is the most common form of cataract removal surgery. This procedure usually does not require stitches.
  • Extracapsular surgery—An incision is made in the eye and the hard center of the lens is removed. The remainder of the lens may be removed by suction. Or, the back capsule of your lens may be left in place to serve as a place for the artificial lens to rest. This surgery requires stitches. This method is rarely performed in developed countries due to possible complications.

In both types of surgery, local anesthesia is used so that you do not feel any pain. This can either be in the form of an injection given below the eye or liquid medication into the eye during the surgery. You will also likely be given a sedative to make you more comfortable.

In most cases, the removed lens is replaced by an intraocular lens (IOL). An IOL is a clear or yellow-tinted artificial lens. It requires no special care and remains permanently in the eye. In some cases, an IOL cannot be used due to surgical complications, unusual anatomy, or other eye diseases. In these rare cases, either a contact lens or eyeglasses that provide powerful magnification are used after the surgery to correct the vision.


Before, during, and after your cataract surgery. Vancouver Island Health Authority website. Available at: Accessed May 10, 2017.

Cataract. American Optometric Association website. Available at: Accessed May 10, 2017.

Cataracts and cataract surgery. Patient website. Available at: Updated November 20, 2015. Accessed May 10, 2017.

Cataracts in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated November 28, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2017.

Facts about cataract. National Eye Institute (NEI) website. Available at: Updated September 2015. Accessed May 10, 2017.

What are cataracts? American Academy of Ophthalmology website. Available at: Updated November 15, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2017.

What is a cataract? NIH Senior Health website. Available at: Updated January 2013. Accessed May 10, 2017.

Last reviewed May 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 12/20/2014