Medical Information on Cataract
by Dr Andrew Blaikie for VI Scotland
This document is written with the minimum use of medical terms and jargon. It is impossible to avoid all medical terms but where we have used them we have attempted to explain them as clearly as we can. Although the information is intended to describe most aspects of the condition each child is different and there will always be exceptions to the rule. As far as we can determine these pages are true and accurate and have been written in good faith.
What this information is not for
This document is not a substitute for a consultation with a Health Professional and should not to be used as a means of diagnosing a condition.
We hope the information will help you to:
- Have a better understanding of the condition
- Know what tests and treatments are normally available
- Know when to seek professional advice
- Be able to discuss the condition in a more informed way
- Make the most of consultations with carers, teachers and health professionals
- Be reassured and more able to cope
Due to staffing limitations we are not able to offer telephone or email advice to parents of children.
What we see is made in the brain from signals given to it by the eyes. What we see is in fact made in the brain. The brain makes sight from signals given to it by the eyes.
What is the normal structure of the eye?
The eye is made of three parts.
- A light focussing bit at the front (cornea and lens).
- A light sensitive film at the back of the eye (retina).
- A large collection of communication wires to the brain (optic nerve).
A curved window called the cornea first focuses the light. The light then passes through a hole called the pupil. A circle of muscle called the iris surrounds the pupil. The iris is the coloured part of the eye. The light is then focused onto the back of the eye by a lens. Tiny light sensitive patches (photoreceptors) cover the back of the eye. These photoreceptors collect information about the visual world. The covering of photoreceptors at the back of the eye forms a thin film known as the retina. Each photoreceptor sends its signals down very fine wires to the brain. The wires joining each eye to the brain are called the optic nerves. The information then travels to many different special 'vision' parts of the brain. All parts of the brain and eye need to be present and working for us to see normally.
Cataract is when the normally clear lens of the eye becomes hazy. If the lens is not clear then not all the light can get into the eye and vision is often blurred.
Children with cataracts in both eyes
Most children with cataract in only one eye usually have good vision in the other. These children do not normally complain of reduced vision. When both eyes are affected the child is much more likely to have blurred vision. This document mainly discusses children who have cataract in both eyes.
There are many different causes of Cataract in children. Sometimes nobody can say for sure why it has developed. When no cause can be identified this is called Idiopathic.
There are four main groups of conditions that cause cataract in children:
- Infection of the unborn baby in the womb
- Inherited, genetic cataract conditions
- Conditions that effect the normal metabolism of the child
- Some specific eye conditions often occur along with cataract
What infections might cause cataract in the unborn baby?
If a mother catches certain infections during pregnancy the unborn baby is more likely to have cataracts. Infections that are more likely to cause cataracts include:
- German measles (rubella)
- Chicken pox (varicella)
These germs can travel in the blood of the mother and infect the baby in the womb. The germ can then cause damage to the lens of the unborn baby.
Some cataract conditions run in families
Sometimes cataract can be caused by conditions that run in families. These are called inherited diseases and are caused by misprints in the genes of one or both parents.
Genes are a chemical alphabet. They are the body's 'built-in' plan to make sure all the different parts of the body grow and work correctly. Parents pass their genes on to their children. That is to say children 'inherit' their parent's genes. If a child inherits a certain gene with a misprint they can sometimes be born with cataract. There are many different kinds of inherited cataract conditions.
Some conditions that affect metabolism can also cause cataracts
Metabolism is a word used to describe the way our bodies make energy from food. Children with conditions that affect normal metabolism sometimes develop cataracts. Metabolic conditions where cataract is more common include:
- Galactokinase Deficiency
These conditions are rare in childhood. Please ask us if you would like further information on these conditions.
Some specific eye conditions occur along with cataract
There are some eye conditions that often also occur with cataracts. These conditions include:
- Leber's Congenital Amaurosis
- Retinitis Pigmentosa
- Retinopathy of Prematurity
- Iritis & Still's Disease
Cataracts can affect different children in different ways. Cataract usually causes blurring of vision. The more hazy the lens is the more blurred the vision will be.
Most children with cataract in only one eye usually have good vision in the other. These children do not normally complain of reduced vision. If both a child's eyes have cataracts they are much more likely to have serious visual impairment.
Most young children who are born with cataracts in both eyes however feel their vision to be 'normal'. At first they assume that everyone else has vision the same as their own, as they have never known anything else but their own visual world. They do not realise that other people see things differently.
How blurred the vision might be depends on:
- How hazy the lens is.
- What part of the lens is hazy.
- Whether the child has developed a 'lazy' eye.
- Whether the eye has other conditions that might reduce vision.
If only a small area of the lens is hazy, away from the centre, then the child is likely to have good vision. If the centre of the lens is very hazy, not letting much light in, then the child is more likely to have poor vision.
If cataract has been present from an early age then the child may develop 'lazy' eyes. This is also known as Amblyopia. It is not actually the eye that has become lazy; it is the special vision parts of the brain. The brain can only learn to see as clearly as the picture given to it by the eyes. If the brain has not been given a sharp, clear picture by the eye because of cataracts then it cannot learn to see clearly. If the cataracts are removed by an operation vision may still be blurred. This is because the brain has not developed the power to see clearly. This is called Amblyopia.
Some children with cataract also sometimes have other problems with their eyes. Microphthalmia and nystagmus are often seen along with cataract in children. These other eye conditions may cause reduced vision even though the cataracts have been removed. If you would like information on nystagmus or microphthalmia please ask us.
When a baby is born doctors examine the eyes for signs of cataract. If cataract is noticed they can then ask an eye doctor to perform further tests.
Young children with cataract may develop fast to-and-fro movements of the eyes called nystagmus. Parents will often notice this. Sometimes parents also notice (by the way their child acts) that their child's vision is reduced. If they discuss their concerns with their Family Doctor an assessment can be arranged.
Cataracts can be removed by an operation. The cataracts are however only removed if they are causing blurred vision. If the cataracts are very dark and hazy they are almost certain to be causing poor vision. An operation is then needed to remove the cataracts soon after the child is born. This prevents the child growing up with blurred vision and lazy eyes (amblyopia).
If the cataracts are not too hazy it can be more difficult to decide if an operation is needed or not. It is sometimes difficult in younger children to tell how well they are seeing. Often it can be better to wait until the child is a little older before making the decision to do a cataract operation. When a child is older the eye doctor can be surer what the child's level of vision really is.
Once the hazy lens (cataract) has been removed it needs to be replaced by another lens. This can be a spectacle lens, a contact lens or a small plastic lens inside the eye (intraocular lens). Even after the cataract has been removed there may still be a lot of work to do. One eye may not see so well as the other. This may be because it is lazy (amblyopic). Patching of the good eye may need to be done to encourage the poorer eye to see. As an eye grows the strength of the new lens will need to be changed. The child will have to attend the hospital quite often for checks.
What are the possible complications of a Cataract Operation?
There are many possible problems that can develop after a cataract operation. These include:
- Secondary cataract
Eyes keep their shape by being pumped up with water. It is a bit like a football being pumped up and inflated with air. You can feel the 'pressure' in your own eyes by gently feeling them through your closed eyelids. The amount of pressure depends on the flow of water in and out of the eye. If the flow of water out of the eye becomes blocked the pressure goes up. High pressure in the eye can cause damage to the optic nerve. This is called glaucoma and sometimes happens after a cataract operation. Drops or a small operation can lower the pressure.
Squint is when a child's eyes do not appear to point in the same direction. This more often occurs in a child with a lazy or amblyopic eye. A lazy eye is more common in cataract and so squint also occurs more often. Squint can be improved by wearing glasses or contact lenses, patching the better eye or an operation.
Secondary Cataract is quite common
Sometimes after a cataract operation a hazy, white skin can grow where the cataract used to be. This is called Posterior Capsule Opacification. This needs to be removed if it causes blurred vision. This can be done either by a small operation or with laser treatment.
Infection is very rare but can cause severe loss of vision
Luckily infection within the eye is very rare after a cataract operation. If a child's eye becomes red and sore after a cataract operation then they need to tell their eye doctor quickly. A further small operation will often be needed and antibiotics injected into the eye. Even if a child gets all the right treatment vision may end up being very poor.
How can parents, family, friends and teachers make a difference?
There are lots of things that can be done to help children with cataract make the most of their vision.
We use our vision to get around, learn new things and to meet other people and make friends. It is important to consider what your child's particular problems with vision might be now and in the future.
If your child has been prescribed spectacles, contact lenses or a Low Visual Aid (LVA) it is important that they are encouraged to wear and use them. This will help your child see more clearly and ensure the vision parts of the brain grow and develop.
Wearing a hat and tinted glasses can also help reduce symptoms of photophobia (dislike of bright light). If your child has also been prescribed drops they should be used regularly as advised by the nurses and doctors at the eye clinic.
Problems at school may be due to some of the reading books being hard to see. This often means it takes longer and more effort to do the work. If the size of print is increased and letters and words spaced more widely most children will find schoolwork easier. Good bright lighting and crisp black print on a clean white background will also make things easier. Sometimes placing reading books on a slope, which tilts the print towards the child, will improve reading speed as well. When reading it can be helpful to read one line at a time through a 'letter box' placed over the page. Placing a piece of blue tack below the line they are reading, at the beginning of the next sentence, can help some children find their way back to the start of the next line more quickly.
It is also worth watching carefully to find out what the smallest toys are that a child can see and play with. Then try to only play with toys that are the same size or bigger. Placing one toy on a plain background will often help children see it more readily. Placing lots of toys of different size and colour close together on a patterned background can make them more difficult to see.
Recognising facial expressions can often be difficult. It is worth trying to find out at what distance facial expressions can be seen and responded to. Then always try to talk and smile from within this distance. This helps a child to learn what facial expressions mean and to copy them.
Infants and young children need to learn about the world around them. Home visiting teachers, physiotherapists and occupational and speech therapists may all add to the child's care and education. It is important to continue the programmes that they recommend. If the child is involved in family activities vision can improve and new skills can develop.
Even if a child has very poor vision many useful and practical things can be done to improve the ability of the child to get around, interact with other children and learn.
Who wrote these documents?
These pages are the consensus of opinion of many different people. They include parents of visually impaired children, visually impaired children themselves, Community Paediatricians, Ophthalmologists, Educationalists and Psychologists.
The main author and person responsible for their content is Dr Andrew Blaikie who was an Ophthalmology Research Fellow with Visual Impairment Scotland and is a member of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.