Pterygia and the Surfer
What is a Pterygium?
A pterygium (pronounced tear-ridge-y-um, pterygia for plural) is a common eye condition that affects people who spend a lot of time outdoors. It appears as a fleshy, red/pink growth on the border of the white and clear parts of the eye, usually on the side closest to the nose.
What causes a pterygium?
Most studies now support that long-term exposure to Ultra Violet (UV) light is the main cause of pterygia. When UV light is focussed to the nasal area (which happens when reflected light hits the eye, e.g. reflected from the water) it changes the cells causing a pterygium to grow. There may be other contributing factors such as long-term exposure to dust or sandy environments.
High risk groups include:
Surfers (as many as 90% of professional surfers develop pterygia).
Living between latitudes 40 degrees north and south (the Gold Coast is at 28 degrees).
Spending a lot of the time on the water, e.g. surf patrol, sailors, sea kayaking, surf skiing, stand-up paddle boarding, etc.
Agricultural workers or anyone spending the majority of their working day outside.
What can I do to reduce the incidence of pterygia?
Wearing adequate sun protection goes a long way in reducing the risk of developing a pterygium. This protection includes:
UV blocking contact lenses
The correct sunglasses are critical for long term protection. Studies have shown that some sunglass designs can allow as much as 45% of ambient UV to reach the eye (mainly from the sides or underneath the lenses). A wrap design, or better still side-shields like the old aviators with leather side shields, will offer the most protection of all sunglasses. Combine this with a hat and you’ll have pretty decent protection.
But what if I want protection in the water?
There are surfing goggles available that will do a great job and if goggles don’t appeal to you then you can wear UV blocking contact lenses. In fact UV blocking contact lenses may actually provide the best type of protection against pterygia formation. UV can’t be absorbed or transmitted by the cornea when one of these contact lenses is worn so it won’t be focussed on the nasal area.
Can I wear UV blocking contact lenses if I don’t have a prescription?
Yes, you can! Contact lenses with no power are called ‘plano’ contact lenses and are available in the UV blocking material. Simply book in an appointment to see our optometrist Michael, and he will be able to assess and provide you with the most suitable contact lens for you. Full contact lens training and care is provided if you are a first time contact lens user.
If I have a pterygium how can I get rid of it?
Many eye surgeons, ophthalmologists, specialise in removing pterygia. The operation involves surgically removing the growth and then grafting conjunctival tissue over the area to reduce the risk of regrowth. Although regrowth was a big problem in the past, modern-day surgical techniques are much better and the incidence of regrowth is greatly diminished. If you are interested in having your pterygium removed, book in to see Michael so that he can write you a referral to a well reputed surgeon.
Of course, the best option is prevention rather than removal so following the above recommendations is the key to minimising the risk of developing a pterygium. Always wear a hat and sunglasses, and consider UV blocking contact lenses when in the water.
NB: Always get your optometrist or ophthalmologist to examine and diagnose your pterygium to ensure the growth you have is nothing more serious.
Article written by Michael Quante - Optometrist, Eyecare Plus Miami