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Common Eye injuries in Athletes

MUSC Health Sports Medicine
April 25, 2022

By Brittney Lang, MS, ATC, SCAT
Athletic Trainer

There can be many injuries related to athletics, but one that is common is eye injuries. It can happen in all types of sports from collusion, contact and non-contact to high risk, low risk and very high risk. Every year nearly 40,000 individuals sustain an eye injury during athletics or recreational activity, most of which could be prevented with proper safety eyewear. There are a few main types of injuries to the eye. No matter the injury the individual should seek proper medical care as soon as possible

Types of Eye Injuries

There are many types of injuries that can occur with the eye but they can be grouped into a few specific categories. These are some of those categories:

Blunt Trauma Injury – a sudden impact to the eye or area around the eye. This can be from anything from a ball or other object to another player. Depending on the force of the hit it can lead to injuries as minor as a black eye or laceration of the eyelid to as severe as an orbital fracture or detached retina or more.

Penetrating Eye Injury – when an object penetrates the eye. This can be anywhere from getting poked in the eye with a finger to broken glasses or other debris or equipment making contact with the eye. Severity of the injury can be related to the depth and location of the penetration.

Corneal Abrasion – this is a scratch to outer layer of the eye. This can be causes by a penetrating injury or even blunt trauma depending on the object that the athlete was hit with during the event. It can be very common injury and can be related to small amounts of debris entering the eye to getting the cornea scratched by a fingernail when poked in the eye.

Radiation Eye Injury – this is caused by prolonged exposure to UV rays from the sun. Athlete who participate in sports on water or snow like water skiing and snow boarding are exposed to the bright sunlight that reflects off the surface of the water or snow. It can be very harmful the athlete’s vision and can lead to vision loss and damage.

Chemical Burn – Chemical powders or solutions and paints or other irritants like fertilizers and such that are used on playing fields can be kicked up and can get in the athlete’s eyes. Chemicals in pools that are not properly maintained can also do damage to the eyes. Stronger chemicals can cause severe damage where more mild chemicals may only cause irritation, burning and tearing up of the eye and can be relieved with simply rinsing the eye with cool water or sterile saline solution till able to be evaluated further.

Proper Care

If an athlete should sustain an eye injury it is important to get the individual proper medical care right way. That can be from the athletic trainer taking care of the initial evaluation and treatment and determining if further specialized care is needed. Or being sent to a hospital to be seen by an ophthalmologist or optometrist for further evaluation and care. The sooner the athlete receives proper care the better the chance of recovery and possibly reduce the risk of vision loss depending on the injury. The athlete should also not return to sports until cleared by the proper medical professionals so as to not do more damage.

Some signs and symptoms that may require immediate referral:

  • Sudden decrease in or loss of vision
  • Pain with movement of the eye
  • Foreign body sensation/embedded foreign object
  • Floaters or light flashes
  • Irregular pupils
  • Halo around lights
  • Hemorrhage of the eye
  • Red and inflamed eye
  • Photophobia
  • Blood in the eye
  • Or any other issues that may not be normal for the athlete.

Protective Eye Wear

Eye injuries can potentially occur in all sports even those that require athletes to wear helmet and face masks. Wearing proper protective eye wear when needed is strongly recommended, especially for those that wear glasses or contacts. The eye wear should also be tested and meet the standards of proper governing bodies for protective sports equipment, like the American Society of Testing and Materials. This organization tests many of the sports eyewear that sports such as basketball, racquetball, soccer and field hockey use during play. The eye wear is usually made of an impact resistant plastic or polycarbonate lenses. Another type of protective eyewear that may be beneficial is for those sports that involve snow or water (i.e skiing) and need proper protection from UV rays. Sunglasses or goggles with UV protection should be worn and they should be rated for 100% UVA and UVB rays. Many safety eye wear can also be fitted by optometrist and ophthalmologist for those individuals who need prescription lenses as well. They can be made with the proper materials and be safe but still allow the athlete to see properly.

It is vital to get the individuals eyes checked regularly so as to make sure the eyes are healthy and there are no underlying issues. Most young athletes are required to do a vision test and get the eyes checked yearly with sport physicals. Yearly eye exams with an optometrist or ophthalmologist is beneficial for all individuals. Any athlete that sustains an eye injury no matter the severity of the injury should seek medical attention soon as possible to limit any damage the eye may have taken. We only have one set of eyes and need to take care of them.