Sports cause more than 40,000 eye injuries each year. More than 90% of these injuries can be prevented. Overall, basketball and baseball cause the most eye injuries, followed by water sports and racquet sports.
When it comes to eye injuries, sports can be classified as low risk, high risk and very high risk. Low-risk sports do not use a ball, puck, stick, bat or racquet, and they don't involve body contact. Some low-risk sports are track and field, swimming, gymnastics, and cycling.
High-risk sports use a ball, puck, bat, stick or racquet, or they involve body contact. Some high-risk sports are baseball, basketball, hockey, football, lacrosse, tennis and other racquet sports, fencing and water polo.
Very-high-risk sports involve body contact and do not use eye protectors. Some very-high-risk sports are boxing, wrestling and contact martial arts.
Common types of eye injuries are blunt trauma, penetrating injuries and radiation injury from sunlight.
Blunt trauma occurs when something hits you in the eye. Blunt trauma causes most sports-related eye injuries. Some serious examples are an orbital blowout fracture (a broken bone under the eyeball), a ruptured globe (broken eyeball) and a detached retina (the part of the eye that is sensitive to light and helps you see). Bruising of the eye and eyelid (a "black eye") looks bad but usually is a less serious injury.
Penetrating injuries occur when something cuts into your eye. These injuries are not very common. You can get a penetrating injury if your eyeglasses break while you are wearing them, if another person's finger scratches you in the eye, or if a fishing hook gets caught in your eye. Penetrating eye injuries range from mild to deep cuts.
Radiation injuries are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun. These injuries are most common in sports such as snow skiing, water skiing and other water sports.
Your family doctor should examine you before you play any sport. Tell your doctor if you have any eye problems or if you have a family history of retinal problems. If so, you should be checked by an eye doctor before playing any high-risk or very-high-risk sports to avoid any serious injury.
Your doctor can tell you how to protect your eyes. Wearing eye protection can reduce the number and severity of eye injuries. Only 3-mm polycarbonate lenses should be used in protective sports eyewear. These lenses are available in plain and prescription forms. Polycarbonate lenses are impact resistant. They also are the thinnest and lightest lenses available.
Never wear protective devices without lenses. Contact lenses and sunglasses will not protect your eyes from blunt or penetrating injuries. Wearing a helmet or faceguard cannot protect your eyes, because your eyes are still exposed to an opponent's fingers or other sports equipment. The helmet also can be knocked off, leaving your eyes vulnerable to injury. Your eye doctor can help you choose eye protection for your specific sport.
Athletes with a serious eye injury should be examined by an ophthalmologist and return to play only if the doctor says it is safe. The injured eye should feel comfortable and have adequate vision. The athlete should wear eye protection.
For a less serious injury, the team physician can usually decide if the athlete can return to play based on the type of injury and how the athlete feels. Athletes should never use topical anesthetics (pain medicines) so they can keep playing.
Prevention and Treatment of Common Eye Injuries in Sports by O Rodriguez, D.O., AM Lavina, M.D., and A Agarwal, M.D. (American Family Physician April 01, 2003, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20030401/1481.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff