A pterygium, sometimes called surfer’s eye due to the high exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light rays, is an abnormal, non-cancerous growth of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the thin mucous membrane that covers the whites of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelids. A pterygium appears as an elevated triangular whitish thickening that is caused by excessive growth of the conjunctiva and extends on to the surface of the eye. If the pterygium grows large enough, it can interfere with vision and cause redness, irritation, and tearing.
While the exact cause is still unknown, a pterygium is thought to be caused by exposure to UV rays. It is often irritated in dry, low humidity conditions. Although Atlanta has a comparatively high level of humidity to many other parts of the country, pterygium growth is still found in people who have outdoor occupations and are exposed to sunlight, sand, and wind. Similarly, if you suffer from a dry eye condition, you might also be at risk of developing this thickening of the conjunctiva. The condition is rarely seen in children, statistics show it is most prevalent within ages of 20-50 years old.
Sometimes confused with a condition called pinguecula, a pterygium is a noncancerous growth that usually grows on the surface of the eye. It is usually slightly raised from the surface with blood vessels that may be visible. The exact cause of the development of the lesions are not precisely known, but experts believe that exposure to ultraviolet light, eye dryness and irritants such as dust and wind may be factors. It generally affects those between the ages of 20 and 40. More men develop the condition than women.
Individuals with surfer’s eye sometimes do not experience any symptoms at all. These individuals can simply be observed but are advised to protect themselves from UV light with polarized sunglasses. However, the pterygium can be visible and make the person feel self-conscious.
Symptoms can include:
Blurred vision usually occurs due to distortion of the cornea’s shape or when the lesion grows onto the cornea, the outer layer of the eye. The physician examines the eye with a microscope called a slit lamp to diagnose the condition.
You may not require treatment for the lesion if it causes no symptoms. Simply using drops for dry eyes or eye drops that contain steroid medications may be sufficient to relieve any inflammation that occurs.
It is important to have regular eye exams to monitor the progression and wear protective glasses that shield all angles of the eye from harmful UV rays to prevent and slow the onset of growth. If the lesion begins to grow over the iris of the eye, pterygium surgery may be necessary to restore full vision.
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A pterygium excision surgery may become necessary if drops or ointments are unable to relieve your condition or if the pterygium grows large enough to blur your vision. Surgery requires that the lesion is removed from the surface of the eye and covered with a small graft of skin to prevent regrowth.
Complications from this surgery, such as infection, are rare but patients should be aware of the risk of recurrence. The risk of a recurring pterygium can be as high as 50% without the use of a conjunctival autograft or amniotic membrane. With the use of either tissue after pterygium excision, the risk is reduced to about 5-10%. Recurrent pterygia are treated with similar surgical intervention.