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Cataract Surgery May Be Safer With Laser

Laser Pretreatment Softens Cataracts, Allows for Safer, Easier Removal, Researchers Say
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 25, 2011 (Orlando, Fla.) -- Laser pretreatment to "soften" cataracts appears to be making cataract surgery safer, two new studies suggest.

"There certainly seems to be a benefit to using the laser," says American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) spokesman James Salz, MD, clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He reviewed the findings for WebMD.

"If you have a technique to soften the cataract, there appears to be less chance of damage [to the eye]," Salz says.

The research was presented here at the AAO annual meeting.

Standard vs. Laser Cataract Surgery

More than 1.5 million cataract surgeries are performed annually in the U.S. One in three mostly older Americans will have the surgery at some point in their lives.

The surgery is performed to remove the natural lens of the eye after it has become clouded over time. A permanent artificial lens is then implanted to replace the natural lens and provide appropriate vision correction for each patient.

Currently, most aspects of cataract surgery, including the initial incision and the breakup and removal of the clouded lens from the lens capsule, are performed manually by the surgeon. An ultrasound instrument with a vibrating needle is used to break up the cataracts, and a vacuum sucks them out.

The new studies looked at using the so-called femtosecond laser to deliver near-infrared light to fragment the cataract into tiny segments prior to removal.

"The idea is that all the surgeon will have to do is remove the pieces with a vacuum," says researcher Mark Packer, MD, of Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland. "Ideally, you won't need ultrasound, or at least you'll need less ultrasound." 

That's important because ultrasound can cause collateral damage to the eye, he says. It can hinder recovery and cause clouding of the cornea, which is the clear outer layer of the eye. 

Although approved by the FDA, the femtosecond laser procedure is not widely used in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

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