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Pterygium – It’s Difficult to Spell

And Pterygium is even more difficult to say. The correct […]

By Published On: 18 March 20123.9 min read

And Pterygium is even more difficult to say.

The correct pronunciation does not use the “P”, much in the same way that psychology doesn’t.

Phonetically it is: terr – idge – ee – uhm

Now that’s cleared up, what is a pterygium?

A pterygium is something that grows on the surface of the eye. The growth is benign, that’s to say non cancerous, non malignant. So why worry about it?

The growth can extend over the eye surface to the extent that it covers the seeing part of the eye, the cornea, at which time it means that benign or not, something needs to be done about it.

The name pterygium comes from the Greek word for little wing or fin, and in medical terms describes the formation in the eye of a wing like growth on the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane covering the eye, from an inner corner towards the centre of the eye.

The reason why a pterygium grows from the inner side of the eye from the nose is thought to be something to do with the sun’s rays coming on the side of the face and being refracted by the cornea on to the inner side – the nose protects the other side of the eye from the rays.

A pterygium is light in colour, fleshy looking and starts growing in the eye specifically from the nose side toward its centre. It doesn’t look that bad, but some people won’t be comfortable having or looking at a pterygium. However, for the most part it is unnoticeable in early stages, so if it’s not a danger to vision or general health it may be left well alone.


Symptoms initially include some redness, dry itchy eyes alternating with watery eyes – sounds like any surfer coming off the beach! These accompanying symptoms to the development of the pterygium can make life uncomfortable, and are further exacerbated when enjoying the activities that initiated it all.


A clue to who is likely to get a pterygium is in the common name given for the condition – surfer’s eye. Ultra violet light, dust and low humidity are the main factors contributing to its incidence.

If a patient comes in for an eye test to an optometrist, they are under 25 years of age and have a pterygium, you can bet your bottom dollar that they are a surfer!

It’s no wonder then that surfers are very susceptible, being exposed to lots of clear ultra violet light, low humidity from dry clear winds and sand blown from beaches. Added to the causes must surely be the preference of surfers not to wear protective eyewear since it probably isn’t practical – in surfing terms that is.

Other people to exhibit the condition are fishermen, because of the strong ultra violet light no doubt, and to a lesser extent outdoor workers. It should be noted that it takes many years out in the sun and wind before anything is seen to happen.


Over the counter eye drops can relieve the symptoms of dryness and irritation, whilst prescription cortisone eye drops can further assist, but should only be used sparingly.

If symptoms become exaggerated or more importantly vision begins to be impaired, then surgery becomes a preferred option. Quite often it’s the early symptoms that induce willingness for surgery as vision impairment is not all that frequent.

Surgery requires a day hospital stay with eye soreness resulting for a few days. The days should be spent at home, not work, and within six weeks all should be back to normal.

Unfortunately about half of pterygia removed surgically grow back with older procedures. Older procedures involve the surgical peeling off of the pterygium and it is allowed to heal naturally.

Recently ophthalmic surgeons, who have upgraded their technique use conjunctival tissue from under the eyelid and transplant it on top of the removed pterygium area. This has been proven to reduce the recurrence rate from 50% to 5%.

If you are having an opinion about pterygium removal, make sure you ask the surgeon what removal technique they use. If they are not using the conjunctival graft method – you should think twice about having them do your procedure.

CONTACT US if you want a recommendation to an ophthalmic surgeon that uses the latest surgical techniques.

Prevention is better than cure

The obvious methods of prevention are use of good quality sunglasses with side covers, and wide brimmed hats.

It is interesting to note that surfers suffer from pterygia but that skiers and mountain climbers are not susceptible to the same degree, taking proper precautions.



  1. Alistair Goodwin 25 January 2015 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    This is a great article by Jim.
    As a long time surfer I have developed pterygium mainly in my left eye and its good to finally find out whats happening but that its not untreatable and that one of these days I can get it sorted out because not only is it painful at times it also looks pretty bad!
    Thanks Jim

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