Mexican surfers are great. They’ve supported the Know-Your-Ears Project and wanted to know everything about it. But the first part of the conversation was often pretty confusing. When I told them I do research on the “oído de surfistas” they smiled and corrected me saying, “oído” means ear but that I probably meant “ojo de surfistas” which means Surfer’s Eye. So after we’ve got the terminology sorted out they frequently told me: There is no Surfer’s Ear in Mexico, only Surfer’s Eye. Well, I haven’t met a single Mexican surfer who has had surgery because of Surfer’s Ear but I did see quite a few who needed eye surgery. So this post is for all the great Mexican surfers I met, and it is all about Surfer’s Eye.
What is Surfer’s Eye?
Surfer’s Eye also called Pterygium describes the phenomenon when something resembling a second skin grows over the conjunctiva of your eye. It can reach your pupil and block parts of your vision. It makes your eyes look constantly red so everybody thinks you are a drug addict.
Not only surfers suffer from Surfer’s Eye. But thanks to the reflection of the sun on the ocean surface and constant saltwater irritation in your eyes it is very common amongst surfers, especially in regions facing west where the sun plunges into the ocean at dawn. Who besides surfers would look straight into the glare of the sun for hours waiting for waves? Besides a genetic predisposition wind sunlight and sand are factors that trigger the growth.
What can you do against it?
If you move to Ireland odds are you will have less sun in your eyes. But you will probably end up with Surfer’s Ear instead. Surfing with sunglasses is a pain but would give you great protection. A simple hood with a visor or a surf hat will keep away most of the sun from above. It does make sense to use artificial tears after every evening surf session in breaks like Puerto Escondido or Pascuales, for example. They face west and since there are some of the heaviest beach breaks in the world there is sand all over water that will bother your eyes.
Anyways, you won´t stop surfing your favorite beachy so you might still get it. What then?
The idea is simple. But don’t let anyone except for a specialist touch you, we are talking about your eyesight after all. There have been cases where people lost their eye sight because of this operation. So no matter how confident your surgeon pretends to be. Do one at a time.
The secondary skin will be surgically removed. But the surgery does not stop there. To know how good a surgeon is ask about his or her recurrence rate. It should not be much higher than 10%. There are several techniques to keep it low. Currently, the best surgical option in terms of recurrence is a conjunctival autograft. This means healthy skin from another part of the eye will be moved into the affected area. It can be attached with stitches or fibrin glue. Each method presents its own advantages and disadvantages. Talk to your surgeon about it. A systematic review from December 2016 suggests that fibrin glue has some advantages over stitches when it comes to recurrence rates: abstract here
Here is a video from John A. Hovanesian a Harvard Eye Associates with more details: