Focus on Sports Eye Safety

Wearing appropriate eyewear helps protect your eyes and set a positive example for youngsters when playing sports

A young baseball player crouches at home plate with a catcher’s mitt and face mask.

by Mihir Parikh, M.D.

Baseball, basketball, soccer, surfing — you name it, and we probably play it somewhere in San Diego. Our mild climate makes it easy to participate in sports year-round. Now that summer is officially here, we’re out in full force.

However, our active lifestyles bring an increased risk for eye injuries, especially if we don’t take the proper precautions. Sports-related eye injuries account for 41,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms across the country every year. That’s a lot of time spent in the hospital, especially when you consider that at least 90 percent of significant eye injuries could be prevented with the right protection.

Elbows, balls and other sports injury culprits

More than 70 percent of sports-related eye injuries happen to people under age 25. Basketball, with all of its elbowing action, is the leading cause among people age 15 to 64. Among youths aged 5 to 14 years old, baseball is the top culprit. Other high-risk activities include racquet sports, surfing and contact sports such as football, boxing and martial arts.

Most injuries are the result of blunt trauma, which occur when something like a baseball, surfboard or elbow strikes you in the eye. Blunt trauma can range from a basic “black eye” to a broken bone under the eyeball or damage to the eyeball itself. Less common, but just as serious, are penetrating injuries, which happen when something cuts into your eye — for example, if your eyeglasses break during an activity or someone scratches you in the eye.

What if your child does run into an elbow or other object? Should you put ice on it, or see or doctor?

Pain, swelling or decreased vision all warrant a professional examination, and children are less likely than adults to let you know when something is wrong. When in doubt, always go to the emergency room.

Play it safe to protect your eyes

Your sight is too valuable to risk. While helmets and faceguards are important safety items, they can’t do the job of eyewear (unless they are specifically designed to do so). And while nothing can prevent every sports-related eye injury, simply using eye protection cuts your chance of injury to less than one in 10.

Be sure to choose the proper eyewear for your activity. Your eye doctor can help you decide what type of gear is best for you based on your vision, the health of your eyes and your sport of choice, and can ensure that it fits your face correctly.

Look for eyewear approved by The American Society for Testing and Materials or The American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Choose only lenses made of polycarbonate, a thin, light, impact-resistant plastic. Make sure the bridge is comfortable, and that the glasses are securely held in place. Nothing should impede your vision or distract you as you move.

Playing outdoors? Look for lenses that provide 100 percent UV protection to guard against potential sun damage.

It should go without saying, but if you need corrective glasses or contact lenses, always wear them during sports and activities. Decreased vision puts you at a greater risk for injury. If you’d rather not wear your glasses while you play, you can buy protective lenses in prescription strength.

Finally, if you have vision in only one eye, avoid contact sports and high-risk activities altogether. It’s simply not worth the risk of losing your sight — and once you lose it, you can’t get it back.

Modeling sports eye safety for children

According to the Vision Council of America, nearly nine in 10 people believe children should regularly wear protective eyewear when playing sports, yet just over 30 percent report that their children actually do so.

Clearly, we need more role models, in the form of parents and professional athletes, to demonstrate the importance of wearing protective eyewear. The bicycle helmet law enacted in California several years ago made helmets mandatory and made it easier for parents to insist on protection. Hopefully, safety eyewear will follow suit.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by Mihir Parikh, M.D., Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.