Pterygium (pronounced tur-IJ-ee-um) is a common eye condition that affects people who spend a lot of time outdoors. Pterygium is also known as surfer’s eye because of its common occurrence in surfers. Individuals with pterygium have a growth of pink, fleshy tissue on the white of the eye. This growth usually forms on the side of the eye closest to the nose. This noncancerous lesion usually grows slowly throughout a person’s life; however, for some, it may stop growing after a certain point. In some rare cases, a pterygium will continue growing until it covers the pupil of the eye and interferes with vision.
For some, pterygium causes no symptoms other than appearance. However, an enlarged pterygium may cause redness and inflammation. Should a pterygium grow into the cornea, the clear, outer layer of the eye, it can distort the shape of the cornea causing a condition called astigmatism or lead to corneal scarring.
Symptoms of pterygium may include:
- Gritty feeling
- Sensation of a foreign body in the eye
- Blurred vision
The exact cause of pterygium is unknown; however, it is associated with excessive exposure to wind, sunlight and sand. This condition is found in much greater numbers among people who live close to the equator, but it can develop in anyone who lives in a sunny climate. Pterygium is most common in young adults ages 20 to 40 and appears to be more common in men than women.
Prior to pterygium, sufferers often have a noncancerous condition called pinguecula, which is a yellowish patch or bump on the conjunctiva near the cornea. The conjunctiva is a thin, moist membrane on the surface of the eye.
If symptoms are mild, pterygium usually doesn’t require treatment. If pterygium worsens and causes redness or irritation, it can be treated with some form of eye drops. These could be lubricating or steroid eye drops.
If the lesion causes discomfort or interferes with vision, it can be surgically removed in an outpatient procedure. In the past, doctors were reluctant to recommend surgery due to patient discomfort and high recurrence rates. But recent techniques offer patients a very comfortable procedure with low rates of recurrence. Consider whether surgery is right for you, based on the size of the pterygium and the presence of chronic redness or irritation. Surgery might also be an option if the pterygium prevents you from wearing contact lenses or is causing astigmatism.
Today, the pterygium or pingueculae can be replaced with amniotic membrane grafting. The graft is held in place with a biologic glue, eliminating the need for sutures in most cases. When combined with anti-inflammatory medication, the results are excellent. In other cases, the conunctiva, the mucous membrane lining of the eye, can be harvested and moved to another part of the eye.
This outpatient surgical procedure typically takes 20 to 30 minutes. The patient wears an eye patch overnight and applies drops that are both antibiotic and anti-inflammatory for one week. Steroid drops are used for two months post-surgery.
Although the cause is unclear, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light definitely plays a role in a pterygium forming. The combination of dryness, wind and sun frequently make the condition worse. Wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim will help prevent a pterygium from returning, if it is removed.