Have you noticed a small, fleshy growth on the white part of your eye that keeps getting bigger? Have your eyes been feeling dry, gritty, or irritated lately? These could be signs of pterygium, also known as surfer’s eye. Pterygium is a common, non-cancerous growth that can occur on the conjunctiva, the thin, filmy membrane that lines your eyelids and covers the white part of your eyes.
While a small pterygium may not cause any problems at first, as it grows larger it can become red and inflamed. It may encroach onto the cornea, the clear front surface of your eye, leading to blurred vision, astigmatism, and other vision changes. In some cases, pterygium surgery is recommended to remove the growth and prevent further vision loss.
If you’ve been diagnosed with pterygium and surgery has been suggested, you probably have a lot of questions. How is the procedure done? How much does pterygium surgery cost? Will insurance cover it? What kind of outcomes and recovery can you expect? This complete guide covers everything you need to know about pterygium and pterygium surgery costs.
What is Pterygium (Surfer’s Eye)?
A pterygium is an abnormal, wedge-shaped growth of tissue that originates in the conjunctiva. It typically starts out as a raised, yellowish bump near the inner corner of the eye. As the bump grows, it extends onto the cornea in the shape of a wing or triangle. Pterygium earned the nickname “surfer’s eye” because it’s commonly seen in people who spend a lot of time outdoors in activities like surfing, sailing, or swimming.
Causes and Risk Factors
The main cause of pterygium is believed to be chronic exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. Other factors that can increase your risk of developing pterygium include:
- Living in sunny, windy climates near the equator
- Having a family history of pterygium
- Dusty or dry environments
- Older age (more common after age 40)
- Male gender
The condition is also associated with frequent eye irritation or inflammation due to causes like dry eyes, allergies, or eye infections. Genetics may play a role as well.
Signs and Symptoms
In the early stages, you may notice:
- A raised, yellowish or pinkish bump on the white part of your eye near the nose
- Redness and inflammation around the bump
- Mild irritation, grittiness, burning, or a foreign body sensation
- Excess tearing or discharge
- Visible blood vessels on the growth
As pterygium progresses, additional symptoms can include:
- Decreased vision or visual acuity
- Blurriness, haze, or reduced contrast sensitivity
- Astigmatism as the growth changes the shape of the cornea
- A visible fleshy triangle encroaching onto the cornea
- Restricted eye movements if the growth is large
- Chronic pain, discomfort, or feeling of having something in your eye
When is Surgery Recommended?
If a pterygium is small and not causing problems, your ophthalmologist may recommend just monitoring it or using lubricating eyedrops. Surgery is generally considered if:
- The pterygium is rapidly growing or becoming inflamed
- It starts affecting your vision
- It is causing persistent irritation or discomfort
- Conservative treatments have not helped manage your symptoms
Surgery aims to remove the pterygium, improve vision and comfort, and prevent long-term damage or complications from leaving the growth untreated.
Pterygium Surgery Procedure
Pterygium surgery is an outpatient procedure done under local anesthesia. There are a few different surgical techniques your ophthalmologist may use:
In this simple approach, the ophthalmologist removes the pterygium growth then leaves the underlying sclera (white part of the eye) bare. However, this method has a high rate of recurrence.
This is the most common and effective technique. After removing the pterygium, the surgeon takes a small patch of healthy tissue from another part of your conjunctiva and grafts it over the affected area. This promotes healing and significantly reduces the chances of the pterygium growing back.
Amniotic Membrane Graft
This involves placing an amniotic membrane over the bare sclera after pterygium removal. The membrane acts as a scaffold for your eye to heal. It has natural anti-inflammatory and anti-scarring properties.
Your surgeon may use medical-grade fibrin glue to stick down conjunctival autografts or amniotic membrane grafts instead of sutures. The adhesive helps secure the grafts and reduces postoperative discomfort.
Steps of the Procedure
Pterygium surgery typically involves the following:
- Preparation – Your eye area is cleaned and numbed with anesthetic drops. You remain awake during the procedure.
- Growth Removal – Using a surgical microscope, the surgeon carefully removes the pterygium from the conjunctiva and cornea using a scalpel or laser.
- Grafting – If a graft is needed, a thin layer of tissue is removed from under your upper eyelid or a donor graft is positioned with glue or sutures.
- Closure – Any incisions are closed with stitches or the graft is sealed in place with fibrin glue. A patch may cover your eye.
- The procedure takes around 30-60 minutes. You can go home the same day.
Following pterygium surgery:
- Your eye will be red, swollen and watery for a few weeks as it heals.
- Your doctor will prescribe antibiotic and anti-inflammatory eyedrops to prevent infection and reduce inflammation.
- You’ll need to wear an eye patch or protective shield at night for about 1-2 weeks.
- Your vision may be blurry for several days after surgery.
- You should avoid strenuous activity for at least 2 weeks.
- Follow up appointments will monitor your healing and check for any complications.
- It can take 3 months or longer for your vision to fully stabilize and improve.
Risks and Potential Complications
While it’s generally a safe procedure, pterygium surgery does carry some risks like:
- Infection – Prevented by using prescribed antibiotic drops after surgery.
- Recurrence – Up to 10-15% of pterygia can grow back, but techniques like grafting reduce this risk.
- Scarring – Applied eye medications help minimize scarring.
- Vision changes – Such as induced astigmatism. Usually temporary as your eye heals.
- Eye dryness and irritation – Using preservative-free artificial tears can help manage dry eye syndrome.
- Double or ghost images – Rare side effect that normally resolves within weeks.
- Loss of vision – Very rare severe complication. Immediately report any sudden vision loss to your doctor.
Following your ophthalmologist’s postoperative care instructions carefully can help prevent complications and support optimal recovery after pterygium surgery.
Cost of Pterygium Surgery
The cost of pterygium surgery can vary quite a bit depending on where you live, the surgeon you choose, and the specifics of your case.
Average Surgery Costs
According to cost comparison websites like NewChoiceHealth.com and MDSave.com, the typical total costs for pterygium surgery in the United States are:
- National average cost: $3,998 – $8,359
- Minimum national average cost: $995 – $1,600
Some factors that influence the price of your individual surgery:
- Geographic location – Prices are generally higher in areas like New York and California compared to other parts of the country.
- Your ophthalmologist – More experienced surgeons or specialists tend to charge higher fees.
- Surgical techniques – A complex conjunctival autograft with sutures costs more than simple excision.
- Facility fees – Having the procedure at an outpatient surgery center is cheaper than a hospital.
Getting cost estimates in advance from your eye doctor can help you budget for the expense.
What Does Insurance Cover?
Since pterygium surgery is an elective, cosmetic procedure, insurance does not always cover it. However, if the growth is substantially impacting your vision or eye health, you may be able to get coverage.
For your insurance to pay for pterygium removal, your ophthalmologist will need to demonstrate it is medically necessary. This requires providing documentation showing:
- Your symptoms – like vision changes, restricted eye movement, or chronic irritation.
- Clinical findings – such as the size, location, and extent of corneal involvement based on a slit lamp exam.
- Past treatments that failed – such as lubricating drops.
- Potential risks if left untreated – like astigmatism or vision loss.
Your insurer will review this information and decide if your case meets their criteria for medical necessity. If approved, you will need to pay any co-pays or deductibles your policy requires for outpatient surgery.
Note: Even with insurance approval, see what your out-of-network costs would be. Going out-of-network, even with approval, often leaves patients with a higher percentage of the bill.
If your claim gets denied, don’t give up. You can appeal the decision and have your surgeon provide additional details supporting the medical necessity of the procedure.
Finding the Right Surgeon for Pterygium Surgery
Choosing the right ophthalmologist to perform your pterygium surgery is key for getting the best results. Here are some tips:
- Look for a board-certified ophthalmologist, ideally with a subspecialty in cornea and external diseases. They have the most specialized training and experience with pterygium removal.
- Do your research. Check their credentials, read online reviews, look at before/after photos of surgeries they’ve done.
- Ask people you know if they can recommend an exceptional surgeon. Word-of-mouth references can be really helpful.
- Schedule consultations with at least 2-3 doctors before deciding. Discuss their approach, techniques, fees, and any questions you have. Go with the one you feel most comfortable with.
- Don’t choose based on price alone. An expert surgeon with higher fees can save you cost and hassle in the long-run by minimizing risks and giving you better, longer-lasting results.
Take the time to carefully select a surgeon so you get the top-notch medical care and successful outcome you deserve.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions about pterygium and pterygium surgery:
How long is the recovery time after pterygium surgery?
Most patients can return to their normal activities within 1-2 weeks after surgery. However, it may take up to 2-3 months for the eye to fully heal and your vision to stabilize.
How can I prevent pterygium from coming back after surgery?
Protect your eyes from sunlight, wear UV blocking sunglasses outside, use preservative-free lubricating eyedrops as needed, and avoid irritants like dust and wind. Don’t rub your eyes vigorously. Follow your surgeon’s postoperative instructions carefully.
Does pterygium surgery hurt?
You may feel some mild burning or stinging during the first few days after surgery. Your doctor can prescribe eyedrops to make you more comfortable during recovery. The procedure itself is painless since you are awake but your eye is completely numbed.
When can I drive again after pterygium surgery?
Your surgeon will likely recommend avoiding driving for at least 1 week after surgery. You’ll need to wait until your vision is clear enough and you can move your eye easily again.
How successful is pterygium surgery?
When performed by an experienced ophthalmologist using modern techniques like grafting, success rates of over 90% are typical. Most patients have significant improvement in eye redness, irritation, cosmetic appearance, and vision.
If pterygium is causing blurry vision or persistent eye discomfort, surgery can be an effective solution. With an experienced surgeon, the likelihood of positive outcomes and long-term relief is very high. While costs can range widely, shopping around for an affordable surgeon and checking your insurance coverage can help reduce the expense. Do your research to find an ophthalmologist you trust so you can see and feel better again!