By Rachel Murphy
What is a pterygium?
A pterygium is a wedge-shaped bump on the white part of the eye (the sclera) that can invade the cornea. It is sometimes called “surfer’s eye.” Pterygia are benign growths meaning they are not cancerous. They are more common on the inside corner of the eye closest to the nose, but can occur on the outside corner as well. It can occur in one or both eyes. A pterygium typically grows very slowly and does not affect vision, but in severe cases it can grow across the cornea and block vision. The most common symptoms are burning, grittiness, itching, a foreign body sensation, and blurred vision. It can lead to increased dryness and irritation. Occasionally it can become red and inflamed which can cause mild pain.
What causes a pterygium?
A pterygium is basically a callus that develops from exposure to sunlight, wind, and dust. Pterygia are more common in individuals with dry eye and can also increase the severity of the dryness. The exact cause of the growth is unknown. They are more common in farmers, fishermen, and people living near the equator. They are also more common in younger individuals age 20 to 40 and seems to be more prevalent in men than women.
How is a pterygium treated?
In many cases of mild pterygium there may be no symptoms and no need for treatment. The most common complication associated with a pterygium is increased dryness, which may be relieved using artificial tears. If a pterygium becomes irritated or inflamed, it can be treated with topical medication such as a steroid drop for short periods of time. Artificial tears and topical medications will help with irritation, but they do not shrink the size of the pterygium. The only way to remove a pterygium is through surgery. This can be done for cosmetic reasons or to improve vision if the pterygium begins to block vision.
What can I expect during a pterygium removal surgery?
The surgery is typically about 30 minutes and usually requires wearing a patch for one to two days after surgery. During the surgery, the callused patch is skin is removed and a graft placed over the area. The graft can come from another part of the conjunctiva (the clear tissue overlying the sclera) or from a graft made from amniotic tissue. Full recovery may take several weeks, but the patient should be able to return to work and normal activity after a few days. Swimming and rubbing the eye should be avoided during the recovery period. The most common side effects of surgery are redness, swelling, and soreness. Your doctor will typically prescribe a steroid drop to use for up to a few weeks after the surgery.
Will my pterygium return after having it removed?
It is possible for a pterygium to return after surgery particularly if no graft is used the surgery. If a graft is used, recurrence rate is about 5-10%. Recurrence is most common in the first year after surgery. It is very important to protect your eyes from sunlight using UV blocking sunglasses and a hat with a brim. This also helps reduce exposure from wind and dust. In some cases, pterygium removal may also change the shape of the cornea resulting in astigmatism.