Cataract surgery is one of the most common and successful surgeries done in the United States. Most people can resume normal activities within days or weeks. But it can take up to a year for your eyes to feel completely normal.
Here's when most people can expect to return to routine daily activities after cataract removal.
Your eyes need time to heal after cataract surgery
When you're eager to resume activities, it helps to understand how your eyes heal after surgery. Let's look at what happens to your eyes after cataract removal.
During cataract surgery, a small incision is made in the front of your eye. Through this opening, the surgeon removes your old, cloudy lens and inserts a new artificial lens, called an intraocular lens or IOL. A protective shield is then placed over your eye to keep it safe as it heals. Your doctor may advise you to wear the covering for several nights while you sleep. Avoid touching or rubbing your eye.
Your eye heals in two stages, Dr. Hovanesian says. During the first 24 hours, the small incision begins to close and the surface of the eye seals shut. But the smooth barrier underneath the eye's surface can take another few weeks to fully heal.
Your ophthalmologist will prescribe antibiotic eye drops to prevent infection and anti-inflammatory eye drops to help reduce any internal swelling. You may also be given a script for a pain reliever. Be sure to follow the dosage instructions of prescribed medications as directed by your doctor.
“Expectations after cataract surgery are high, and patients often wonder why they don’t have 20/20 vision in the days or even weeks after their procedure,” says ophthalmologist and Academy member John Hovanesian, MD, a specialist in cataract and corneal surgery. “That’s like having a hip replacement surgery and asking why you can’t run a marathon at your usual speed the next day. It takes time, physical therapy and patience before you regain all your abilities. The same is true after cataract surgery.”
Blurriness and eye discomfort are normal during cataract recovery
Slight discomfort and changes in the appearance and sensation of your eye are normal as you heal. Know that:
- Your vision may be blurry when you first remove the protective eye shield. That’s because it takes time for your brain to adapt to your new artificial lens.
- Redness in the white of your eye is normal. This happens because the surgery temporarily damages the blood vessels in your eye. Expect this redness to disappear within a few days.
- Scratchiness or a feeling that something is in your eye is common. This sensation should gradually go away as your eye heals. If you have dry eye or another ocular surface disease, this sensation could persist longer. Ask your ophthalmologist for advice if you continue to experience bothersome sensations.
But serious eye problems are not normal. Contact your ophthalmologist immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms after cataract surgery:
- Vision loss
- Eye pain
- Flashing lights, or a dark curtain closing in on your vision. Some floaters can be normal after cataract surgery, but contact your doctor just in case.
- Nausea, vomiting or excessive coughing
Resuming driving, exercise and daily activities after cataract surgery
You may feel eager to resume your normal schedule after surgery. Here's what you can expect.
Bending down, sneezing or coughing
During first 48 hours after surgery, it's important not to bend over or put your head below your waist. This can increase eye pressure and interfere with healing. Also, be as gentle as possible when sneezing or coughing.
Driving after cataract surgery
Ask your ophthalmologist when it will be safe for you to drive. If you’ve only had surgery on one eye, driving may be especially difficult.
People who had a strong prescription for distance vision before cataract surgery may notice a strong imbalance in their vision until their second eye is treated, usually two weeks after the first surgery.
If you must drive before your second surgery, your doctor may offer these options:
- Wear your old glasses but remove the lens from the eye that had surgery
- Wear a contact lens in the non-operated eye
- Don’t use vision correction lenses at all
Strenuous activity and exercise after cataract surgery
Most people can do very light exercise the day after surgery, including walking. For activities like biking, running, tennis, golf and sex, wait one week after your procedure. If you are a swimmer, doctors advise you to wait two weeks before going in the water to minimize your risk of infection and irritation. You can shower the day after surgery, but take care to keep the stream of water from hitting your eye directly.
Reading, computer work, watching TV
Most people will be able to resume these activities within several hours of surgery. Keep in mind, you may experience some initial blurriness as your brain and eyes adjust to your new lens.
Prescription drugs and medical procedures
Generally, you won't have any medicine restrictions except the morning of surgery, when you may be asked to change your medication schedule. You can schedule MRIs, X-rays and other medical procedures anytime after your surgery.
Treatments for dry eye and ocular surface disease
Ophthalmologists recommend you hold off on applying warm compresses, lid scrubs, and other treatments used for blepharitis, meibomian gland dysfunction and dry eye until a week after cataract surgery. These treatments can put pressure on your eye and release bacteria into the tear film, causing infection.
Using other eye drops
Lubricant eye drops are generally safe to use right away. But make sure you use a brand new, sterile bottle and avoid using lubricant drops within five minutes of your antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drops. Pro tip: Eye drops feel more soothing when they're refrigerated before use.
Ask your surgeon and ophthalmologist when it’s safe to resume using medicated eye drops for other conditions, such as glaucoma or uveitis.
Getting new glasses or contact lenses after cataract surgery
It takes a few weeks for vision to stabilize after your eyes have had cataract surgery. Your ophthalmologist will wait about that long before testing you for a new vision prescription.
In the meantime, it's ok to use an inexpensive pair of reading glasses from the drugstore. Rest assured that you won’t damage your eyes even if you wear the wrong prescription.
Be sure to check with your doctor before putting in contact lenses or scleral lenses.
“Remember that your body is not 20-something when you have cataract surgery! So don’t expect to recover like a 20-year-old, no matter what your friends may have told you,” advises Dr. Hovanesian.