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Pterygium (pronounced "tur-RIDGE-ium") is a benign, non-cancerous thickening of the normally transparent, outer coating of the eye (conjunctiva) that extends onto the cornea. Often, a pterygium isn't even noticable unless the eye becomes red for any reason. At this time, the pterygium may become even more red, and stand out more clearly. If it becomes large enough to approach the center of the cornea, the pterygium may cause visual distortion, affect the glasses prescription, or even block a patient's vision directly.
The most common cause of pterygium is probably ultraviolet (UV) radiation, typically from sunlight. Thus, people who spend long amounts of time outdoors doing water sports, or those who work in the sun all day, are most susceptible. Ptergia are also worsened by constant exposure to dry, dusty environments. The best method of preventing pterygium is to regularly wear "UV 400"-rated sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim when outdoors in sunny conditions.
In mild cases, pterygium discomfort and redness can be controlled with lubricant eye drops (artificial tears). Other anti-inflamatory drops can be tried, and many patients can tolerate their pterygia for many years by merely treating with drops only when the redness flares. However, when symptoms of irritation, redness or blurred vision are resistant to medical treatment, if you are unhappy with the situation, or when vision is beginning to be affected by rapid growth of a pterygium, surgical removal is considered.
Dr. Miller emphasizes that even though the removal of a pterygium is relatively straightforward, ... it's the re-growth of these blood vessels and scarring that really presents the challenge to a successful outcome. Most corneal specialists today perform pterygium surgery with a "conjunctival graft", to reduce the threat of recurrence.
During this procedure, the pterygium is removed from the cornea, and also extending back towards the "corner of the eye". this is a larger defect than most patients understand. The cornea regains clarity, but the adjacent sclera (the "white part of the eye") is also now exposed, and must be covered. This gap where the pterygium was removed is filled with a transplant of tissue. This tissue is either obtained from elsewhere on the eye (under the eyelid) or an "amnionic membrane" is used. In either case, the graft is either sewn into position or glued into place with special adhesive. Although the procedure requires more meticulous skill and more critical steps than traditional surgery (just removing the pterygium and letting it fill in spontaneously), the "graft" (transplant) helps prevent re-growth of the pterygium by filling the space where abnormal tissue would have returned.