Dr. Nikki Iravani, Founder and CEO at EyeXam and former VP of Clinical and Professional Affairs for CooperVision
According to The Lighthouse Guild, every year 100,000 eye injuries in the U.S. are related to sports activities, and of those injuries, around 13,500 lead to some degree of permanent vision loss. However, the American Academy of Ophthalmology notes that an estimated 90% of serious eye injuries sustained during sports could be prevented by wearing appropriate protective eyewear.
Children at Highest Risk of Serious Eye Injury During Sports Participation
Per the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, children between the ages of 10 to 14 years and 15 to 17 years have the highest rate of eye injury, and 75% of eye injuries are sustained by young male sports players.
The most common types of injury are:
- Corneal abrasion (scratches to the clear front portion of the eye) – nearly 3 in 10 injuries
- Conjunctivitis (inflammation and infection typically aced by bacteria) – around 1 in 10 injuries
- Foreign body in the eye (such as dirt, grass, or broken equipment) – not quite 1 in 10 injuries
Other common injuries include an inflamed iris (the colored part of the eye), hyphema (blood in the clear part of the eye between the cornea and iris), traumatic cataract (impact causing clouding of the lens of the eye), detached retina (separation between connected layers of the eye), and fracture of the eye socket.
Nearly 1 in 20 children who suffer an eye injury playing sports have to be hospitalized. The rest can typically be treated in the emergency room or doctor’s office and then released.
The Most Dangerous Sports for Eye Injuries
More than 30% of all sports-related injuries are suffered by people playing basketball, baseball and softball. The American College of Sports Medicine divides sports into stratified risk classifications as follows:
Sports that don’t require physical contact and which are lacking equipment that could potentially cause blunt or penetrating trauma, pose the lowest risk for eye injury:
- Track and field
Sports that require the use of equipment like balls, sticks, paddles or racquets have an increased risk of blunt or penetrating eye injury:
- Lacrosse/field hockey
- Racket sports
- American football
Very High Risk
The highest risk for eye injury is posed by sports in which eye protection is often not used and which involve violent one-on-one physical body contact:
- Martial arts
Eye Protection Is the Best Defense Against Sports-Related Eye Injuries
All athletes should wear sport-specific eye protection when participating in athletic activities. Prescription glasses don’t offer protection and shouldn’t be worn alone or under goggle-type protective eyewear. Instead, protected prescription eyewear should be customized for the player. Other eyewear like sunglasses or occupational safety eyewear is also not appropriate for wear when playing sports.
Each sport has its own recommendations for appropriate eye safety wear. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International is a global standards development organization that publishes requirements for approved sports safety eyewear.
Most sports have a specific ASTM standard that has been designed to address sports-specific risks. You can get guidance from your healthcare provider (HCP) regarding what product to buy. You can generally find the appropriate ASTM standard on eyewear products and/or packaging before making your purchase. If you need prescription protective eyewear, your ophthalmologist can help you.
Basic Safety Eyewear Guidelines for High-Risk Sports
Since using protective eyewear during sports activities can prevent 1 in 10 sports-related eye injuries, the most practical thing to do is to follow guidelines for your specific sport. It’s important that protective eyewear be correctly fitted for you or your child to effectively prevent injuries.
The best type of eye protection for basketball players is sports eye guards such as goggles or spectacles. Look for products that are approved to the ASTM standard F803-19.
Eye protection for baseball and softball players should include a clear, helmet-mounted faceguard/visor made of polycarbonate material that provides UV protection. These eyewear products should be approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). Players not at home plate may opt for reduced protection with sports eye guards in the form of goggles or spectacles that are approved to ASTM F803-19 or the most current sport-specific ASTM standards.
Hockey players should wear helmet-attached wire or polycarbonate visors/shields; goaltenders must wear full wire cage face protectors. All hockey eye and face protectors should be approved and labeled by The Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC).
Field hockey and lacrosse players should wear sports eye guards (goggles) approved to ASTM F3077-17 (lacrosse) or 18 (field hockey) or the most current version of those standards. Women’s lacrosse eye protectors should have the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) Certification Mark.
Racquetball, squash, and tennis players should wear spectacle or goggle sports eye guards approved to ASTM F3164-19 or the most current version of that standard; of the three groups, tennis players are the least at risk while indoor court players have a higher risk of eye injury.
U.S. football players should be wearing a faceguard-attached polycarbonate visor shield that offers UV protection as well as shielding against objects penetrating openings in the faceguard grid.
Soccer players should invest in sports eye guards (goggles or spectacles) that are approved by ASTM F803-19.
Ensuring Eye Health and Safety During Sports Activities
Adults should talk with their sports coach and eye doctor to ensure eye safety protocols are being observed and the right gear is in place. Health care providers, coaches, and parents should form a partnership to help protect the sight of sports-playing youth. Protective eyewear should be part of the uniform if possible, and if the youth team doesn’t wear eye protection, adults should model proper eye safety and ensure their own children are protected while setting an example for the rest of the team.
Regular eye exams should be part of physical wellness checks, and any eye injuries should be promptly evaluated and treated to prevent loss of sight. For more information about eye health, visit Versant Health.
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