Cataracts are fairly common, affecting an estimated 22 million Americans annually. Most sufferers are over the age of 40. However, they can affect younger people too. Fortunately, cataracts are easy to remove, thanks to modern ophthalmic instruments and other related medical equipment.

In fact, cataracts are common the world over. People in third world countries often suffer needlessly from them. This is simply due to lack of availability of health care, health insurance, proper ophthalmic instruments and qualified surgeons.

What are cataracts? These are cloudy spots that develop on the crystalline lens of the eye. They can vary in size and opacity. They block light from passing through.

The degree to which the eye is negatively affected depends on the size and location of the cataract. However, even the smallest of cataracts cause a noticeable decline in visual acuity. Larger ones may severely alter one's quality of life. Left untreated, the may worsen, grow or lead to other eye conditions such as glaucoma.

Thanks to modern ophthalmic instruments, cataract surgery is more precise than ever before. It also poses fewer risks than it once did. Most patients emerge from surgery with restored vision and greater quality of life.

Surgery can be performed in one of three major ways. The most common type is Phacoemulsification (or Phaco). It is almost always the preferred method because it is less intrusive and poses the lowest risk. The types of ophthalmic instruments used in Phaco surgery include:

* Photoemulsification probe: This is a small, handheld tool. It has a fine tip which vibrates at ultrasonic frequency. This is used to emulsify the lens material containing the cataract.

* Cracker/Chopper: The name of this ophthalmic instrument may sound terrifying. Actually, it’s a very small tool about the length and diameter of a pencil. It is used to “chop” the nucleus into smaller parts. This helps to make emulsification with the vibrating probe easier. It also aids in the aspiration of cortical material.

* Aspirator (or vacuum tool): This is essentially a “clean-up” tool. (You’ve probably seen a similar tool at the dentist.) It’s used to remove waste that is generated during the surgical process. It keeps the site clean and free of debris and obstructions. It can flush out the eye area and suck up the waste.

* Calipers/speculum: This is another hand-held ophthalmic instrument. This type of tool is used for all kinds of things in life. The ophthalmic instruments variety are similar, but on a much smaller scale.

They can be spread open and clipped to the work area of the eye. They hold the skin back and the eye area open so that the surgeon can work unobstructed on the area. They come in different types with varying parts and shapes, depending on the particular situation. They typically remain on the eye throughout a majority of the procedure.

* Canula: This is a small tube that is used to irrigate the eye area with saline solution during the procedure. This helps keep the site clean.

*Knives/scalpels: These may be used to cut through the outer lens of the eye.

* Scissors: These ophthalmic instruments also come in a variety of shapes, sizes and configurations. The tips may be long or short, blunt or pointed. They may have varying handle lengths. Like scalpels, scissors may also be used for cutting if needed. The surgeon will choose the pair that is the most appropriate for the job.

These simple yet advanced ophthalmic instruments make it possible for people with cataracts to go on to lead full lives. New surgical techniques and medical equipment are always being developed to further improve cataract surgery for patients.