1. Sobering statistics
According to a 2014 article on the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO)’s website, approximately 42,000 annual emergency medical visits are due to sports-related eye injuries.
The National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, joins the AAO in pointing out that every 13 minutes, an emergency room physician in the US treats someone with an eye injury caused by participation in sports.
Overall, eye injuries due to sports cost Americans an estimated $200 million annually.
2. Especially serious for youth
Sports are the leading cause of eye injuries among young people in the 11- to 14-year-old age bracket, and 1-in-3 sports eye injuries overall involve children. For children ages 14 and younger, a baseball-related injury is the most common, while basketball is more common among older teens and young adults.
A 2016 New York Times article describes the prevalence of eye injuries among young sports participants: Of the 30,000 sports-related eye injuries reported each year, a huge majority involve youth under age 18. A number of these instances involve children under age 10.
Even more serious is physical injury to the eye, which the NEI lists as the leading cause of childhood blindness.
3. Which sports cause which injuries?
The AAO lists the majority of eye injuries occurring in baseball, basketball and racquet sports. An elbow to the eye is especially common in basketball. Air guns, also popular with youth, cause fewer overall injuries but can be equally dangerous to the eyes. AAO statistics also show close to half of the injuries in martial arts involve the eyes or face.
One overlooked sports-related eye injury is the radiation exposure from ultraviolet light reflected from water and snow. Snow skiers and water skiers should remember that radiation burns can produce serious ophthalmological injuries.
4. How do sports-related eye injuries happen?
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) points out that fingers, hands, feet or sports gear can all become instruments of penetration injuries and blunt trauma that cause serious injuries to the eyes.
The blunt trauma resulting when an object, such as a football, hits a person in the eye can lead to retinal detachment or orbital fractures. It can even cause a broken eyeball, known as a "ruptured globe."
The penetration injuries occurring when an object cuts the eye are less frequent but just as serious. If a basketball player wears normal vision-corrective eyeglasses during play, for example, those glasses can shatter and cut the eye. Weekend fishermen should also be aware that improper handling of bait hooks can cause deep cuts to the eye.
5. Low or high risk?
According to the AAFP, sports that pose a risk of injury to the eye can be ranked by their degree of danger.
Sports considered low-risk are those that do not involve body contact or the use of an instrument such as a ball or bat or of an object capable of flying through the air (for example, swimming and cycling). But sports involving the use of such items are categorized as high-risk. These sports include baseball, hockey, lacrosse and fencing.
Sports where athletes do not typically wear some type of eye protection — boxing, for example, or martial arts involving body contact — are classed as extremely high-risk. The AAO suggest these sports feature an inherently high risk of blindness. While there is no approved protective eyewear used in boxing, the use of thumbless gloves may mitigate more serious eye injuries.
6. The right protection
The AAO notes wearing the right protective eye gear can actually prevent about 90 percent of serious eye injuries. The vital component lies in choosing the appropriate level of eye protection for each sport.
The AAO recommends a helmet fitted with a polycarbonate face mask for participants in sports such as ice hockey, baseball and men’s lacrosse. Polycarbonate, an unusually lightweight but strong substance, is shatterproof. A wire shield on a polycarbonate mask is also acceptable for some sports.
Eyewear with polycarbonate lenses is also recommended for athletes playing soccer, basketball, field hockey and racquet sports such as squash.
Health and safety organization Prevent Blindness points out that to ensure efficacy, any protective eyewear used in sports should be labeled as meeting ASTM F803 standards, which covers all types of such gear.
The AAO also recommends checking with the official governing body of a particular sport to determine any more specific suggested or required eye safety devices.
7. Professional medical advice
The AAFP recommends a thorough physical exam before participating in any sport. It is especially important to discuss with a physician any family history of retinal detachment or other conditions involving the retina, as well as any general vision problems. These are factors that can increase the risk of major sports-related eye injuries significantly.
Finally, the AAO cautions people who have reduced vision in one eye to think carefully, check with a professional ophthalmologist and take proper precautions before engaging in any type of racquet or body-impact sport.