Keep those eyes safe during sport. The Vision Eye Institute shares some expert advice

Macro image of human eye

We Australians love our sports, don’t we? It doesn’t matter what the weather is, we’re out in force. The latest ABS study on sports and recreational social trends shows that 64% of Australians aged 15 years and over had participated in a sport within the last 12 months of the survey.

Injuries are a risk for even the most amateur participant. In fact, research predicts that beginners are more likely to suffer eye injuries than intermediate or advanced players, as beginners are yet to learn or refine the skills to protect and play safely.

In terms of numbers, a 2008 study for the NHMRC showed sports eye injuries run a close second after work-related injuries. While sports only account for 5% of all eye injuries, the worrying statistic for ophthalmologists is that according to the Eye Health in Australia study (2005), they make up 19% of all severe eye injuries.

The main offenders

Every sport carries risk of injury. While most are minor, some can be catastrophic especially those that involve a dense high-speed projectile – a hockey, cricket, squash, lacrosse or tennis ball can be particularly nasty (not to mention the associated stick, bat and racket). Boxing can also be dangerous due to the risk of direct eye injury. In basketball, it could be someone’s fingers causing eye injuries.

Sports that pose a moderate risk include rugby, soccer, water polo, golf, badminton and volleyball. Cycling, swimming, diving, skiing, surfing, kayaking or wrestling are minor risks, but certainly not unheard of. And which surfer hasn’t been walloped by their board on occasion?

While not everyone considers darts and air rifle shooting as a sport, it carries risks (for obvious reasons) too, as does the game of pool (billiards). And don’t even mention paintball to an ophthalmologist!

Preventing eye injuries

Prevention is the key, and a 2002 study in Sports Medicine stated that 90% of sports-related eye injuries can be prevented through protective equipment meeting standards. Ordinary prescription glasses, contact lenses, and sunglasses do not protect against eye injuries. Protective eye-guards are made of ultra-strong polycarbonate and are 10 times more impact resistant than other plastics, and do not reduce vision.

In some sports, protection is either unpractical or – let’s be frank – perceived as ‘uncool’, especially by youths playing sports. This leaves only one other option: take a gamble and hope for the best. In fact, currently most youth sports leagues do not even require the use of eye protection. Parents and coaches must insist that children wear safety glasses or goggles whenever they play.

There is, however, one ‘must-do’ when playing team sports, and that’s playing by the rules. They’re there for a reason, and despite what many people think, they aren’t written in order to make your team lose! They’re there to ensure that everyone walks away at the end of the game, tired but healthy.

Signs of an eye injury

In case such a mishap occurs, here are the signs to observe:

• Bleeding – Seek attention, depending on the severity.

• Double/blurred vision – Go immediately to the doctor or emergency room

• Numb areas – Especially in the cheek area, these can indicate socket injury

• Swelling or bruising – Monitor closely

• Significantly tender areas

If the injury is serious

• Don’t poke or examine the eye by trying to open it forcefully.

• If an object is imbedded in the eye, do not remove it.

• Don’t use any drops or ointments before having the eye examined.

• If there is visible dirt or grit in the eye, you can flush gently with sterile water or saline solution.

• Gently cover the eye for transportation to a medical centre or hospital.

Go easy out there

From a black eye or minor abrasion to the permanent loss of vision, eye injuries need to be taken seriously.

The best advice is to enjoy yourself, but remember that it’s only a game. The best memories should be of laughter afterwards – not a painful reminder of over-exuberance.

Learn more about eye health and safety

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