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Sports-related Eye Injuries

The National Institute of Health’s National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) notes that sports related activities result in more than 40,000 eye injuries annually. More than 90 percent of these injuries can be prevented. Basketball and baseball cause the most eye injuries, followed by water sports and racquet sports. Among 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. Low-risk sports are track and field, cycling, gymnastics, and swimming.

High-risk sports use a ball, puck, bat, stick or racquet, or they involve body contact. Among the rated high-risk sports are 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. The most common types of eye injuries include 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 and a detached retina.

Penetrating injuries occur when something cuts the eye. These injuries are less common among eye injuries. A penetrating injury may occur if one’s eyeglasses break. Penetrating eye injuries range from mild to deep cuts.

Radiation injuries may also cause eye injury concerns and are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun. These injuries are most common in sports such as snow skiing, water skiing and water sports.

In working with patients and groups that would benefit from an educational program on sports related eye injuries, the National Eye Health Education Program has an excellent slide presentation available online. Health care professional are encouraged to promote safety eyewear for sports. There are several simple steps that health care professionals can follow when sport safety is part of an examination or health care evaluation.
Inquire whether a child is involved in sporting activities and which ones she or he plays.
Provide advice based on that provided by the Eye Health Education Program.

Promote the use of sports eyewear whenever they are involved in sports of any kind, but especially in those high risk sports previously noted.

Ask patients, “Do you play sports?” By asking this question, you can open the conversation to begin talking about sports eye protection.

If the patient does play sports, describe the risk of sports-related eye injuries and deliver strong recommendations about the use of sports eyewear.

Present the patient and family members with options for protective eyewear.

Patient education programs can be very beneficial and a significant advance toward prevention programs. Efforts on the part of health care professional and primary care physicians to address eye health can be a great enhancement to coaching staffs at the grade school, high school, college and university levels. As a sport psychologist to NCAA Division 1 universities, I can state that educational programs as a part of sport orientations to athletes would be very helpful. Often times, not enough is done to provide important patient health education on eye care at these levels. The prevention of eye injuries through patient education can be a very beneficial effort to the success of every child engaging in a sport program.

Sources & Resources
National Eye Health Education Program (2014) Sports-Related Eye Injuries: What You Need to Know and Tips for Prevention. Retrieved here.

Thomas W. Miller, Ph.D. ABPP  is a Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Scientist, Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention, and tenured Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Kentucky and a sport psychologist to NCAA Division 1 colleges and universities.

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