Lifewatch: Pterygium

CALIFORNIA -- We live in a beach community and if you're one to soak up the sun you may want to take a closer look at your eyes.

Pterygiums are growths that form on your eye if you get too much sun.  If left untreated, they can eventually hurt your eyesight.  But luckily, they are treatable.

Pterygiums are a yellow or pink growth, similar to a callous, that forms on the white of the eye after too much sun exposure.  If they are left untreated, it can spread to the cornea, blocking vision.

The so-called callous can be easily removed in a ten minute surgery, where a doctor will scrape the pterygium off the eye.

To prevent it from coming back, the doctor covers the area with graft tissue from human placenta.  Doctors use a protein glue instead of stitches to hold the graft in place.

"It looks better because the eye is less red and inflamed. It is much more comfortable for patients because they don't feel stitches on the eye and it makes surgery much more quick. It cuts the time of surgery almost in half," said Ophthalmologist John A. Hovanesian.

The re-growth rate drops from 50% to less than 1% and is less painful.

The first signs of pterygium include redness and irritation in the eye.  Most of them are caused by exposure to UV rays and dry, dusty conditions.

Wearing sunglasses or a hat can lower your risk.


Harvard Eye Associates

(949) 493-5411

BACKGROUND: "Pterygium is a noncancerous thickening or growth on the outer surface of the eye," John A. Hovanesian, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Harvard Eye Associates in San Clemente, Calif., explained to Ivanhoe. The growths occur on the conjunctiva, the thin, transparent membrane covering the outer surface of the eye. Exposure to UV light, dusty, dry air and salt water are all risk factors for the condition, which usually occurs in people who spend a great deal of time outdoors, such as surfers and boaters. Pterygiums occasionally turn into cancer. Everyone is at risk of developing pterygiums. "Pterygium occurs in people both with fair skin and dark skin and it really is a condition that can affect us all and largely depends upon how much time we spend in ultra violet light and dry, dusty environments, and exposed to salt water and other irritants that cause the thickening to occur," Dr. Hovanesian said.

Pterygiums can cause irritation, redness, inflammation and tearing. They can also create a foreign body sensation -- the feeling that something is in the eye. Eye drops or ointments can reduce irritation, but in some cases, surgery is necessary. According to USA Today's Health Encyclopedia, there are three reasons surgery would be the prescribed treatment. First, if the pterygium grows over the cornea, it can cause vision problems. Second, a pterygium may be unsightly and embarrassing for some patients. Third, it can cause excessive discomfort.

TREATMENTS: The traditional surgery to remove pterygiums was "very quick and simple," Dr. Hovanesian said. The abnormal growth was removed from the eye; however, "The problem with this is that very often they would grow back usually within a few months and sometimes even larger than they started." There was a 55 percent chance of the pterygium returning. About 15 years ago, surgeons began covering the bare area where the growth was removed with tissue from the eye.

Now, doctors replace the area with amniotic membrane from the human placenta, which reduces inflammation and scarring.  In addition, the surgery requires no stitches. "When we use these materials, whether it's human tissue for a transplant or amniotic membrane, we hold them in place using, instead of stitches, a type of glue, which is actually made from human blood." The 'glue' is thoroughly tested for safety and forms an almost instant bond with the graft, holding it in place. It is more comfortable for the patients because they don't feel stitches. It also cuts the surgery time almost in half. Pterygiums also grow back less than one percent of the time with the No-Stitch surgery

PREVENTION: Wearing sunglasses helps reduce exposure to UV rays, dust and wind, which can help protect your eyes from developing pterygiums. The wraparound styles are most effective. Wearing a hat can also shield the eyes from environmental damage. Artificial tears are also useful in decreasing irritation by keeping the eyes moist and dust-free.

Reported by Kristy Ondo