By Linda Van Zandt
We risk not only harm from our equipment, but from the environment as well. Much like snow, sunlight reflected off water or sand increases the intensity of ultraviolet radiation. Surfers, therefore, are exposed to harmful light reflected from below as well as light from above. This puts us at greater risk for developing cortical cataracts and other macular degenerative disease. While these two conditions might be considered extreme as far as risk assessment to our eyes, the following four afflictions are important for every surfer to consider:
1: Having recently been diagnosed with pingueculitis, the term “pinguecula” was new to me. Pingueculae are yellowish, slightly raised lesions that form in the inner whites, or sclera of the eye. They are caused by over exposure to sun, sand, surf, wind and/or excessive dryness. Generally they are unproblematic and pose no serious health threat. The use of sunglasses and lubricating eye drops can help keep them controlled. However, when irritated, it feels like something is in your eye. They may become reddened, swollen and inflamed. At this stage, treatment is still relatively simple with the use of anti-inflammatory eye drops. If left untreated, this more severe condition called pingueculitis can lead to the formation of Pterygium. With any inflammation or discomfort of the eye, it is very important to seek early medical attention.
2: Pterygia are growths of fibrous tissue with blood vessels, also typically found in the whites of the eye. The main cause is chronic and intense exposure to ultra-violet light. While in its early phases, although its appearance can be alarming, many people do not require major medical intervention. For smaller pterygia, treatment is similar to that of pingueculitis. However, large or advanced pterygia can grow across and into the cornea, causing surface distortion. This increases the risk of astigmatism, resulting in blurred and distorted vision, eyestrain and/or double vision. Treatment protocol may mean surgical removal. Unfortunately, the recurrence rate of pterygia is somewhat high. To prevent re-growth, after removal the surgeon may suture or glue a piece of surface eye tissue onto the affected area. This method, called autologous conjunctival autografting, is considered safe and offers a low recurrence rate. Drugs that slow tissue growth, such as mitomycin, may be applied topically. After removal of the pterygium, steroid eye drops may also be used to decrease swelling and prevent re-growth.
3: Photokeratitis is a burn of the cornea by ultraviolet rays. Commonly referred to as snow-blindness, prolonged exposure to the sun at any altitude can cause this condition. Symptoms include tearing, pain, redness, and swollen eyelids, along with a gritty sensation in the eyes themselves. There may also be a halo around the eyes, hazy vision and/or temporary loss of vision altogether. Symptoms may not appear for 6-12 hours after UVB exposure. Treatment usually consists of medicated eye drops while keeping the eyes closed with patches. Vision usually returns within 18 hours, with full cornea recovery within two days.
4: The most common eye injury in surfing comes from contact with a surfboard. Frequently, this is due to impact with the nose of the surfboard following a fall. However, danger lurks in other places! Fins are like sharp knives. Surfboard rails, upon impact, are hard enough to break an eye orbit. There is also risk of eye injury from underwater structures such as reefs and rocks. Always protect your face during a fall and when resurfacing after a fall. The moment you feel your feet leaving the surfboard, use your arms to cover your face. Before resurfacing, put your arms above your head to feel around for your board. Watch out if your board is being pulled away from you with the force of the wave. When the energy releases, the leash may very well slingshot the board back toward you like a missile!
Unfortunately collisions with others can also occur. To avoid injury, remember the riding surfer has priority, so avoid their path at all costs. Keep a wide berth from those who are having obvious trouble managing their equipment in the line-up. Consider purchasing a rubber nose guard for your board. This small investment can mean the difference between losing an eye and losing just a week or two of water time.
Finally, be diligent about wearing sunglasses outside the water! Also, several companies such as Oakley, Sea Specs and Barz Optics have sport sunglasses compatible with surfing. They may be considered useful for San Diego summers, and full time when surfing equatorial zones. With their high-impact resistant lenses, they may also offer additional protection from eye injury. All three companies can be easily found on the Internet.