Eye Injuries in Sports


A finger poke here, an elbow jab there … even worse, a baseball hits a 10-year-old batter in the eye at 60 miles an hour. Emergency rooms in the United States treat a sports-related eye injury every 13 minutes, according to the National Eye Institute.

“Baseball causes the greatest number of eye injuries in children between the ages of 5 and 15 (21 percent),” says Dr. David Greenman, an ophthalmologist with Greenman Eye Associates in Charlotte. Not surprisingly, most eye injuries from baseball occur in young men “because of their fearless manner of play and athletic immaturity,” he adds. “For example, although a 12-year-old boy does not have very good aim or control, he can throw a baseball at 70 miles per hour. A devastating injury from a baseball would cause rupture of the eyeball with orbital fractures (breaks of the facial bones around the eye).”

As spring approaches and children get geared up to venture back out onto the field (or court), parents should know that more than 100,000 people suffer from eye injuries related to sports every year, and eye injuries are the leading cause of blindness in children in the United States. The American Academy of Ophthalmology advocates that 90 percent of sports-related eye injuries can be avoided with protective eyewear.

Bruises, Scratches and Contusions
The ballfield isn’t the only place injuries are taking place. On the basketball court, injuries occur more frequently in older teens and the young adult population between 15 and 24 years of age (32 percent). Other sports during which eye injuries easily can occur are ice hockey, lacrosse and racquet sports.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, most ocular injuries are from various sizes of balls or other athletic equipment, elbows, fists or heads.

“We see a lot of sports-related injuries year round, especially in the spring and summer,” says Greenman. And when football practice starts up again in the hot months, boys often decide they do not want to wear their protective helmet. “They typically get scratches of the eye or bruising of the eye lids or even bleeding inside the eye,” Greenman adds.

In addition to abrasions of the cornea and bruises of the lids, sports injuries can include retinal detachments. The most serious risks involve permanent vision loss along with infection, such as with rupture of the eyeball.

“Even with the best surgical techniques, only about 50 percent of children with open globe injuries recover good visual acuity,” states Greenman, noting the effects can be long term. “Patients who have sustained eye injuries are at a greater risk for developing glaucoma.”
He adds, “In our practice, we typically see more young men with sports-related injuries; however, we definitely do see a fair share of young women, too.”

Protective Eyewear Doesn’t Prohibit Play
Greenman reminds parents that the majority of eye injuries in children and teens are both predictable and preventable. “They represent needless suffering and loss of vision that is often avoidable.”

Doctors and optometrists say it’s absolutely necessary for people to use protective eyewear while playing sports. But most leagues don’t require children to wear eye protection, and in fact, parents often think doing so will inhibit their son’s or daughter’s playing ability.

In 2002, only 15 percent of children and 33 percent of adults reported wearing eye protection always or most of the time when participating in sports, hobbies or other activities that can cause eye injuries, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

“I think parents may sometimes be unaware of the importance of protective eyewear with certain sports, or children may feel that safety glasses compromise their performance,” says Greenman. “Children who wear eyeglasses definitely should have lenses that are made of polycarbonate or Trivex, which is a shatter-proof and impact-resistant material.”

What should a parent do if an injury does occur? Greenman advises seeking immediate medical attention if there is anything out of the ordinary with a child’s eyes, as even a light blow can cause a serious eye injury. “Children may be unwilling to admit they have been injured, especially if they were warned by an adult to wear protective eyewear and are worried about punishment,” he says. “But I recommend getting an evaluation for any suspected eye injury. “See an ophthalmologist or go straight to the emergency room, where an ophthalmologist is always on call.” CP

Signs of Eye Injury
• Pain, redness, bruising or swelling
• Discharge from the eye
• Cuts in and around the eye
• Decreased vision, double vision or blurry vision
• Seeing floaters and/or seeing flashes of light

Lee McCracken is an associate editor for Charlotte Parent magazine.