The human eye is prone to many minor irritations and conditions, from allergies and dry eye to styes and conjunctivitis. Many of these conditions are not only common, but also quite treatable. One such condition is a pterygium, an elevated bump on the eye, often referred to as “surfer’s eye.” While it may be alarming at first, a pterygium is non-cancerous and can be treated with a variety of techniques.
What is a Pterygium?
A pterygium presents as a growth on the surface of the sclera, which is what we generally consider the “whites” of our eyes. Usually, this growth develops on the interior side of the eye, closer to the nose. Despite being called “surfer’s eye,” pterygia are not exclusive to people who surf. Any individual exposed to too much sunlight can develop a pterygium. They are, however, more common in middle-aged adults.
What Causes a Pterygium?
A pterygium is sometimes likened to a sunburn, as both sunburns and pterygia are the result of overexposure to sunlight. Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can be harmful to the cells in our bodies.
Most people are aware of the dangers of UV rays. UV light can burn the skin and contributes to skin cancer. But while most people are aware of the need to wear sunscreen, many underestimate the damage UV rays can do to the eye. The main reason a pterygium is called “surfer’s eye” is because it frequently affects surfers who are directly exposed to intense sunlight reflected from the water, often for long periods of time.
Anyone who is exposed to sunlight for an extended period of time can develop a pterygium. Whether you’re a surfer or not, wearing sunglasses that block out UV rays is key to preventing the growth.
What are the Most Common Symptoms of a Pterygium?
The primary symptom of a pterygium is the appearance of a growth on the white part of the eye. But other conditions can present as a growth on the eye. A pterygium can be distinguished from other growths by their location on the side of the eye and lack of yellowish coloration.
A pterygium will usually feel itchy or gritty, giving the patient the distinct feeling of having a foreign substance in their eye. The pterygium also may cause a burning sensation, and as it grows larger or worsens, it can become red and inflamed. It may also grow enough to affect the shape of the cornea, leading to astigmatism, which can cause blurry vision. At that point, significant medical intervention may be needed to prevent permanent disfiguration of the eye.
How is a Pterygium Treated?
In the early stages, a pterygium may be treated with artificial tears or steroids administered through eye drops. This can help ease inflammation. A contact may also help protect the eye from further damage.
If the pterygium is seriously affecting the patient’s comfort and vision, surgery may be recommended. The operation is a relatively simple outpatient procedure.
The advised method of pterygium surgery is called a conjunctival autograft. This involves removing the pterygium and replacing the gap in the sclera with tissue taken from the upper eyelid. The graft can be held in place with stitches, or, for quicker recovery and ease, with a tissue adhesive that will dissolve once the sclera has healed.
Pterygium surgery may cause astigmatism in some patients, usually when a patient already has slight astigmatism. This is one risk of surgery, but it is usually worth the risk, especially if a pterygium has already affected your vision. Surgery can prevent disfiguration and restore sight, an outcome that overrides the risks for many patients.
How Common is Recurrence and How Do You Prevent It?
There is always a slight risk of recurrence once a pterygium is removed. This risk is somewhat mitigated by the conjunctival autograft technique, but it can still happen. The risk of occurrence can be mitigated even further by proper post-surgical treatment. Simply using prescribed eye drops as directed by your doctor can reduce the risk of recurrence.
The most important way to prevent recurrence is to wear sunglasses. Even after your eye has healed, wearing sunglasses regularly when exposed to sunlight is extremely important. Be sure to always wear sunglasses that block out 99-100% of UV rays — this feature is usually marked on sunglasses when you buy a pair. UV rays can do a lot of harm to your eyes even beyond potential pterygia.
Pterygium Treatment, Chicago
Do you have a pterygium that is affecting your vision? Call us at (312) 955-0025 or schedule an appointment to discuss your options for pterygium treatment in Chicago!