While few sports require eye protection – including youth leagues – athletes are at greater risk of eye-related injuries. It's a concern, because sports-related eye injuries account for approximately 100,000 doctor visits in the U.S. every year, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
“Blunt trauma is probably the most common eye injury from sports, as opposed to penetrating injuries,” says UW Health ophthalmologist Patricia Sabb. “Blunt force trauma might be caused by another player’s elbow or a finger or a ball.”
How to lower your risk of eye injuries from playing sports
Injuries can range from superficial cuts to shattered eye sockets and blows that cause lifelong vision loss. Fortunately, preventative measures can go a long way. Here’s what to know about your risk and how to lower it:
Watch the ball. The smaller the ball, the more potential damage: a smaller ball is more likely to cause injury to the eyeball itself instead of just the structures around the eye. “Baseball is a common sport where players can get hit in the eye. With baseball, it’s such a hard ball coming at such a fast speed. It’s small enough that it’ll break bones around the eye, and it has enough force to force the globe of the eye to open,” explains Sabb, who has treated one player who lost his eye after being struck by a baseball while on first base.
But larger balls can do damage, too. “A soccer ball is big enough that it doesn’t hit the eyeball directly — it hits around the eye — but it’s enough force that it can cause bleeding inside the eye,” she says. “And you can get retinal detachment from just about any blunt force trauma.”
Cuts hurt, too. Sports without balls are safer for your eyes, but wrestlers and other athletes in contact sports can end up with finger pokes that scratch the cornea. Eyelid injuries are also possible. “If it’s a superficial eyelid laceration, it might be fine, but if it’s a deep cut, it might need to be sutured,” Sabb notes.
Wear a helmet and/or eye protection. Football, lacrosse and hockey helmets — especially those with face masks — can help shield your eyes from injury. Eye protection is even better. “You’re always going to have some complaints from children resistant to wearing eye protection but it is important for coaches and parents to stress there importance”,” Sabb says. “The risk is never zero, but face masks and eye protection significantly reduce the risk.”
Choose the right eyewear. “You shouldn’t rely on regular everyday glasses to protect you,” Sabb notes. “If those break, it can make an injury worse.” Instead, look for protective sports goggles with shatterproof polycarbonate lenses.
Start an eye-protecting trend. Many youth and adult athletes still skip eye protection, but it’s starting to catch on, especially among athletes who have already suffered an eye injury. “As it becomes more socially acceptable, then more kids will do it, too,” Sabb says. If you’re a parent, point out when you see professional players wearing safety goggles, and wear eye protection when you play sports yourself to set a good example.
If you already have vision issues, don’t take any chances. “Anytime I have a patient who only has one good eye, like a lazy eye, I tell them that they for sure need to wear eye protection, even if they’re just mowing the lawn,” she says. “Because if something ever happens to their good eye, then their life changes forever: then they can’t drive, they can’t read a book. It’s a life-changing accident.”
Seek prompt help for injuries. See a doctor if you experience pain, sensitivity to light, double vision or floaters in your vision, a misshapen pupil, and blood over the white or colored part of the eye after a blow to the eye. Still not sure if you need treatment? Cover the unaffected eye and compare your vision. “If your vision is decreased, you should definitely seek professional care,” Sabb says.
Stay safe in the stands. “The spectators are the ones who get hit sometimes,” she notes. “Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention so if the foul ball goes over the fence and is coming at you, you’ll know it’s coming.”