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By Jake Howard
That whole thing about sunglasses being sun protection and not just a fashion statement, it’s true. As surfers, we spend countless hours staring into the glare of the ocean, squinting, waiting for the next lines of swell to appear on the horizon. And while keeping up with the latest eyewear trends is oh-so important, taking care of your eyeballs will serve you better over the long haul.
I’m talking about surfing’s pterygium problem. Sometimes referred to as “surfer’s eye”—there’s also surfer’s ear, but that’s a story for another time—conjunctival pterygium is the growth of a membrane over the eyeball.
Researchers believe that prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation can induce the growth of this wing-like membrane that begins to develop near the conjunctiva (the corner of the eye near the nose) and gradually works its way toward the cornea (the eye’s clear portion), covering more and more of the eyeball as it progresses. Once the membrane reaches the cornea, one’s vision will begin to be affected.
The condition is considered benign, but it can cause extreme eye discomfort including itching, burning, redness and other symptoms. It’s also not very attractive. Fortunately, the discomfort can be relieved, and the progress of a pterygium growth can be arrested, but pterygium cannot be reversed except through surgery.
“The pesky eyeball growths impact about 2% of people in the northern half of the continental United States, while 5-15% in the lower half. Internationally, the rate of pterygia (plural for pterygium) increases among populations living closer to the equator,” reports Surfline’s Dashel Pierson. “And surfers are more prone to pterygia than anyone—given our prolonged exposure to sun, sand and saltwater.”
Thankfully, pterygium can be prevented. I had a lifeguard supervisor who refused to wear sunglasses, and after 20-plus years on the job, his eyes were in bad shape, always red and painful. He harped on the younger crew to wear hats and glasses on the beach.
The eye’s first line of defense against external irritants is the extremely thin but highly complex tear film that coats the optical surface.
Numerous environmental factors, including bacteria, UV radiation, wind, dust, airborne sand, air pollution, air-conditioning and much more, can cause evaporation that results in slight, moderate or even severe tear film moisture (water) loss, known as dehydration or dry eye. You may not feel the symptoms in slight or moderate moisture loss.
When eyes are simultaneously exposed to several strongly dehydrating factors, discomfort is experienced, small lesions begin to appear on the corneal surface and the tear film cannot function normally. Keep this up and conditions will be in place for pterygium.
Fortunately, everything but the pterygium is reversed once the tear film moisture is replenished.
Although everyone is susceptible to tear film dehydration, if you are a surfer, you should pay extra attention to your tear film health, not only when surfing but always. A healthy tear film at home can better fight off extreme challenges at the beach.
Steps you can take to mitigate the effects of the sun include wearing sunglasses on the beach (polarized if possible) and taking a shower and/or washing your eyes with a warm compress after surfing. There also is anecdotal evidence that rinsing your eyes with fresh coconut water can help combat pterygium, but it reportedly has to come straight from the coconut, not the pasteurized stuff in the grocery store. Good luck with that one.
Summertime is knocking on the door and pretty soon we’re all going to be out in the sunshine a lot more. There are a lot of options out there when it comes to sunglasses and sun protection. It’s not just something you do for style points. Be smart about what you wear when the sun’s out, and your eyes will thank you.
Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including Picket Fence Media, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.