We don’t know about you, but we’re counting down the days until sports return. We long for the roar of a crowd, the crack of a bat, and buzz of a jumbotron. But believe it or not, our eyes might not miss sports as much as we do. According to a recent Harris Poll, the majority of American adults don’t know how common traumatic eye injuries are while playing sports without eye protection.
Sports-Related Eye Injuries by the Number
There are about 100,000 sports-related eye injuries annually. Of that, 42,000 cases lead to emergency room visits, and 13,500 people end up going blind from the incident. One in 3 sports eye injuries involves kids. Moreover, 41% of emergency room eye injuries in kids 10-14 years old are sport induced. In the United States alone, an estimated $175-200 million are spent on eye injuries due to sports.
Eye Injuries by Sport
Baseball is the most common cause of sports-related eye injuries in kids 5-14 years old. Most injuries are caused by a ball to the face, even though many times, players wear helmets. Today, players have a variety of helmet options with different safety features such as a chin strap and extended protective earpieces to protect the jaw.
In 1967, Tony Conigliaro suffered damage to his left retina after being struck in the face by a fastball. He was wearing a helmet at the time, but it did not have the protective earpiece standard on today’s headgear. He was carted off the field with a broken cheekbone and a dislocated jaw, as well as retinal damage. Though he made a comeback, he was eventually forced to retire in 1975 due to his poor eyesight.
Martial Arts & Boxing
No surprise that martial arts are some of the highest contributors to sports-related eye injuries. Forty-five percent of injuries recorded in mixed martial arts (MMA) is face injuries. In 1982, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard underwent surgery to fix his partially detached retina. At the age of 25, Leonard suffered a sparring injury 9 months prior but noticed floaters while training for a championship fight. Sugar Ray retired 6 months after his eye healed from the successful operation.
From flying elbows to rogue fingers, eye injuries are quite common in basketball. In fact, it’s the leading cause of sports eye injuries in people ages 15 to 64, and 1 in 10 collegiate teams can expect an on-court eye injury. In 2017, Akil Mitchell had his left eye popped out of socket. A poke from an opposing player found its way to Mitchell’s eye while the two were fighting for a rebound. Mitchell made a full recovery and continues to play basketball professionally.
Another not surprising inclusion, hockey has many injuries recorded every season, including some to the eyes. Some players will add facemasks and protective visors to their helmets, and these additions reduce the chance of injury 4-fold. Common causes for eye-specific injuries on the ice include:
- Pucks 37%
- High sticking 28%
- Fights 18%
- Unspecified 17%
In 1979, Bernie Parent was playing goalie when an opponent’s stick found its way through the eyehole of his mask. Losing sight in that eye for 2 weeks, he eventually recovered, but the damage to his retina was done. He eventually retired due to vision loss, and this incident made many teams switch from the old fiberglass goalie masks to the standard “cage” mask you see today.
Considered a relatively low-risk sport due to the lack of physical contact, esports comes with its own set of health risks. Eye strain and fatigue are some of the most common complaints heard from gamers, along with neck, back, and wrist pain. Some science has even linked nearsightedness in children to long hours on screens. Ultimately, this category of sports is too new to know what damage can be done in the long-term.
The first line of defense is an annual eye exam. An exam can detect any vision correction needs or possible health concerns that could affect the game and increase the risk of injury. While many of the aforementioned are horrifying, happenstance injuries, 90% of sports eye injuries can be prevented by wearing protective gear. Sunglasses and protective lenses are good but can be more dangerous if they aren’t shatterproof. Polycarbonate lenses are 10x more shatter-resistant than other materials and are the recommended lens for sporting needs.
Unfortunately, most eye safety wear often takes a backseat until a traumatic injury occurs, and some of our current eye protection has been around for a long time.
- Fencing — Mask (1200 B.C.)
- Baseball — Catcher’s Mask (1877)
- Skiing/Snowboarding — Goggles (1965)
- Basketball — Goggles (1968)
- Motor Racing — Full-Face Crash Helmet (1968)
- After the accidental death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, NASCAR made full-face helmets mandatory.
- Hockey — Protective Visor (1973)
- Football — Protective Visor (1984)
- Racquetball — Goggles (1995)
- Soccer — Goggles (1999)
- Lacrosse — Goggles (2005)
- Field Hockey — Goggles (2011)
- Squash — Goggles (2012)
- Esports — Eye vitamins (2019)
- A relatively new sport requires relatively new protection. EyePromise launched Screen Shield Pro in 2019, an eye health supplement designed to help support the eyes during long gaming sessions. This vitamin is fortified with high levels of dietary zeaxanthin and lutein, two critical antioxidants necessary to build and support the eye’s natural protection against harmful blue light, the type of light emitted by screens.
Sports are constantly evolving, and so is the protective gear worn during the events. While we’re missing sports right now, our eyes are grateful for the well-deserved rest.