Surgical treatment for cataract caused by aging changes in the lens which reduce its transparency and leads to visual impairment

Cataract is a major cause of global blindness, accounting for 50% to 80% in developing countries. The number of people blind from cataract is expected to rise due to the increase in life expectancy. Aging causes changes in the lens protein leading to opacification of the lens. These changes are often bilateral although maybe asymmetric. Symptoms from cataracts include glare, blurred vision, progressive decrease in visual function and blindness. Surgery is currently the only treatment option once the lens has opacified and vision is decreasing. The indication for surgery is based on whether the patient's reduced visual function interferes with their quality of life. Different surgical techniques have been developed to remove the cloudy lens which is replaced either by an intraocular lens (positioned in the posterior chamber or the anterior chamber of the eye), aphakic glasses or contact lens. There are four main forms of cataract extraction surgery: intracapsular (ICCE), extracapsular (ECCE), phacoemulsification (PHACO) and manual small incision (MSICS). The review authors searched the medical literature and identified 17 randomised controlled trials (9627 participants) investigating the different surgical interventions. Six of these trials suggested that PHACO gives a better outcome than ECCE. They suggest a better uncorrected visual acuity (UCVA) following PHACO than ECCE but the majority of the trials showed no difference in best corrected visual acuity (BCVA) between the two groups. The costs per procedure were not markedly different between the two techniques in a UK based study, however, a Malaysian study showed ECCE to be significantly cheaper. A study comparing MSICS and ECCE, advocated MSICS as the procedure of choice due to equal costs and better visual results. Two studies compared the results of PHACO and MSICS. Phacoemulsification having a significantly higher proportion of patients with UCVA > 6/18 (81.1% versus 71%) but there was no difference in BSCVA. Trials comparing costs of PHACO and MSICS are important for future research. Manual small incision surgery offers an alternative technique in developing countries as it provides acceptable visual outcomes when compared to PHACO yet is likely to be more economical as it avoids the initial outlay of costs of PHACO. It is important to remember that the studies in this review were based in a variety of countries and situations (hospital based or cataract camps); a knowledge of the setting is vital before drawing conclusions from the data.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review provides evidence from seven RCTs that phacoemulsification gives a better outcome than ECCE with sutures. We also found evidence that ECCE with a posterior chamber lens implant provides better visual outcome than ICCE with aphakic glasses. The long term effect of posterior capsular opacification (PCO) needs to be assessed in larger populations. The data also suggests that ICCE with an anterior chamber lens implant is an effective alternative to ICCE with aphakic glasses, with similar safety. Phacoemulsification provides the best visual outcomes but will only be accessible to the poorer countries if the cost of phacoemulsification and foldable IOLs decrease. Manual small incision cataract surgery provides early visual rehabilitation and comparable visual outcome to PHACO. It has better visual outcomes than ECCE and can be used in any clinic that is currently carrying out ECCE with IOL. Further research from developing regions are needed to compare the cost and longer term outcomes of these procedures e.g. PCO and corneal endothelial cell damage.

Read the full abstract...

Cataract accounts for 50% of blindness globally and remains the leading cause of visual impairment in all regions of the world, despite improvements in surgical outcomes (WHO 2005). This number is expected to rise due to an aging population and increase in life expectancy. Although cataracts are not preventable, their surgical treatment is one of the most cost-effective interventions in healthcare.


To compare the effects of different surgical interventions for age-related cataract.

Search strategy: 

We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE up to July 2006, NRR Issue 3 2005, the reference lists of identified trials and we contacted investigators and experts in the field for details of published and unpublished trials.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTS).

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data and discrepancies were resolved by discussion. Where appropriate, risk ratios, odds ratios and weighted mean differences were summarised after assessing heterogeneity between the studies.

Main results: 

We identified 17 trials that randomised a total of 9627 people. Phacoemulsification gave a better visual outcome than extracapsular surgery but similar average cost per procedure in Europe but not in poorer countries. Extracapsular surgery with posterior chamber lens implant and ICCE with or without an anterior chamber intraocular lens (IOL) implant gave acceptable visual outcomes but extracapsular surgery had less complications. Manual small incision surgery provides better visual outcome than ECCE but slightly inferior unaided visual acuity compared to phacoemulsification.