Eye Injuries: Guard Yourself With Protective Eye Wear

It's an oft-used sports cliche that "injuries are part of the game." But a serious eye injury from sports or recreational activities can hinder much more than your time on the court or in the gym.

Of the 2.5 million eye injuries that occur every year in the United States, around 10 percent are sports or recreation-related, according to the Prevent Blindness America organization. The majority of these injuries occur in younger people: nearly three-quarters of sports and recreation eye injuries affect people under age 25 and about half affect children under age 15.

"Children comprise a large percentage of sports-relate0d eye injuries because so many kids are involved in sports," says Dr. H. Culver Boldt, associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and a staff physician at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. "Also, a child's physical development and athletic immaturity, coupled with their fearless abandon when playing, tends to put them at greater risk for an eye injury."

Most eye injuries occur in basketball, partly because so many people play this particular sport. Injuries occur more from flying elbows or fingers than the ball itself. "If a basketball hits you in the face, the bones around the eye socket usually prevent the ball from making direct contact with the eye: Boldt says. "However, a finger or elbow to the eye can distort the shape of the eye significantly. Blood vessels get stretched and can break, causing bleeding. Retinal detachment is also a concern."

Protective eye wear is a good idea for many sports and recreational activities, particularly if you've had an eye injury before. Are certain kinds of sports goggles better? That depends on the nature of the sport you're playing and the health of your eyes.

"For relatively non-contact sports, like tennis, your eye care professional can put strong, impact-resistant plastic lenses in a pair of eyeglass frames," Boldt says. "It's preferable to use a frame that's sturdier and thicker so that if a ball hits the lens, the lens won't pop out of the frame toward the eye."

For higher risk sports--such as basketball, racquetball and handball--Boldt recommends sports goggles with polycarbonate lenses. "Goggles protect the eyes from the sides, as well as the front. You'll need a strap to hold the goggles on, so they won't get knocked off by sudden movements."

Polycarbonate is great for protection, Boldt says, although the material scratches easier than other plastics. Non-scratch coatings can be purchased to protect the goggle lenses. Prices for protective eye wear vary, depending on the type of frame and whether prescription lenses are needed. "Some prescriptions can be expensive, so another option is wearing contact lenses and goggles with non-prescription lenses. Your eyes will be protected and it may be less costly," Boldt says.

Parents should also schedule a dilated eye exam for their children, starting around age five or six, before the child begins athletics. "Your ophthalmologist should be able to detect any abnormalities that may suggest a more serious condition if an eye injury occurs," Boldt says.

University of Iowa Health Science Relations and H. Culver Boldt, MD