Surfer’s Eye (Pterygium) — What You Can Do

The term Surfer’s Eye (also known as pterygium or pinguecula) refers to a benign but sometimes cosmetically undesirable growth on the conjunctiva (the outermost layer of tissue on the eye. A pterygium begins as a pinguecula, a yellowish spot or lesion on the conjunctiva.

When the pineguecula grows larger and begins to involve the cornea (the transparent, lens-like structure that covers the pupil and iris), it is called a pterygium. While Surfer’s Eye is not typically harmful, its unattractive appearance is reason enough for most people to look into having it removed surgically.

Why is This Condition Called Surfer’s Eye?

While this condition is commonly called “Surfer’s Eye,” it might just as well be called “Outdoorsman’s Eye,” as it derives its name from its tendency to affect people who spend a lot of time in the sun and wind. Ultraviolet light is the primary cause of pterygium, although it also appears that wind, dust, and low humidity can exacerbate the problem.

What Are The Symptoms of Surfer’s Eye?

A pterygium appears as a pink, triangle-shaped growth on the surface of the eye. Pterygia tend to grow on the nasal side of the eye, which some scientists believe may provide a clue that could one day help to determine their exact cause (see Causes below).

In some cases pterygia will stop growing on their own, while in other cases they may grow throughout the sufferer’s life if left untreated. Despite this, pterygia rarely grow so large that they begin to cover the pupil and obstruct vision.

What Causes Surfer’s Eye to Develop?

Causes of Surfer’s Eye include:

  • UV rays
  • Irritation from dust and other particulates
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Lactic acid

Pterygium is most strongly associated with excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet light. Some evidence in support of this idea may be found in the fact that pterygium is more common among island people and among those living between latitudes 40° N and 40 ° S; in other words, a “pterygium belt” can be said to lie astride the equator.

Some have suggested that this hypothesis is contradicted by the prevalence of “Surfer’s Eye” among Eskimo people, who live at high altitudes, although glare from snow and ice may be a factor in such cases. Pterygium is notably also more common among rural Australians, sailors … and of course, surfers.

It has been speculated that the tendency of pterygia to appear on the nasal side of the eye may suggest something about their other possible causes. According to this hypothesis, sunlight passes through the cornea laterally, and the cornea refracts it and focuses it on the limbic area (the border between the cornea and the white of the eye, also known as the sclera).

Sunlight coming from the opposite direction, however, is partially blocked by the shadow of the nose. Lactic acid in perspiration running down the side of the nose and into the eye has also been suggested as a possible cause—and this idea is also supported by the growth’s common appearance of on the nasal side of the eye—but nothing has yet been proved.

While ultraviolet light is believed to be the primary (and possibly the only) culprit, pterygium is also associated with dust and other eye irritants, and studies have shown it to be more prevalent among sawmill workers in India, Thailand, and British Columbia than among control groups in these regions.

It is also interesting to note that pterygium is more common among people between the ages of 20 and 40 (and more likely to recur after treatment if the patient is under the age of 40), although no one is sure why this is the case. Heredity may also play a role.

How Is My Surfer’s Eye Treated?

Most people don’t realize how little scrutiny their faces get in the course of everyday life. No one looks as closely at your face as you do, and very few people ever get as close to your face as you get to the bathroom mirror (nor do most people see it under such harsh lighting).

Also, Surfer’s Eye is not as obvious as, say, an eyelid cyst or an eye stye. This means that while your Surfer’s Eye may appear to be catastrophically visible to you, it is not likely to be noticed by others unless it becomes swollen or reddened by smoke, dust, or other such irritants.

For this reason, surgery to remove a pterygium is not usually recommended if it has not begun to affect the patient’s vision.

In addition to being expensive and often unnecessary, surgery may prove to be futile—in many cases pterygia grow back after they have been removed, especially if the patient is under 40 years of age. As previously noted, however, pterygia will in many cases stop growing without any medical intervention at all.

What to Expect from Surfer’s Eye Surgery

Although surgery is not usually recommended for Surfer’s Eye, it is sometimes necessary. If your eye doctor recommends surgery, it will most likely be performed at a hospital or outpatient facility.

You will be given a local anesthetic and a sedative to keep you calm. An incision will be made in the conjunctiva, around the pterygium, which will then be removed.

An autograft will be made from the area of the conjunctiva that lies beneath the eyelid, and this will be used to cover the area from which the pterygium has been removed. The sutures used to close the wound will dissolve within a few weeks.

It is possible—albeit highly unlikely—that complications may arise from Surfer’s Eye surgery. These complications can include:

  • Infection of the surgical wound
  • Recurrence of the pterygium
  • Scarring

Can I Prevent Surfer’s Eye?

While no surefire way is known to prevent Surfer’s Eye, there are measures you can take to minimize your chances of being afflicted with it. The simplest and most obvious defense is to make sure your eyes are adequately protected from the sun, wind and dust particles, smoke, or other such irritants.

Wear good sunglasses that are designed to offer protection against UV rays and curve to cover the temporal part of the face (cheap sunglasses from a chain pharmacy or a beachside convenience store won’t cut it).

Wide-brimmed hats can also be helpful, and if you are going to spend an extended time in an environment that is windy as well as sunny, you may even want to consider wearing goggles.

When to See a Doctor About Surfer’s Eye

While Surfer’s Eye is rarely cause for alarm, it can affect your appearance in a way that can be distressing for you. Do not hesitate to see a doctor if the appearance of your pterygium bothers you, and go immediately if it begins to affect your vision.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • Are you sure this is just Surfer’s Eye, and not a tumor?
  • Will this pterygium continue to grow if it is left untreated?
  • It looks huge in the mirror; does it really look that bad, or am I overreacting?
  • Do you recommend that I have this growth surgically removed?
  • Is there any alternative to surgery?
  • What are the chances that this will eventually affect my vision?

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This article was last updated on 02/2016