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Eye Injuries Common in Youth Sports

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A recent study published by JAMA Ophthalmology and covered in a New York Times (NYT) article, reveals that eye injuries in sports, particularly in youth sports, are common and often involve activities we may not necessarily consider risky for eyes. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Harvard and other institutions dissected data from the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample, which compiles information on millions of emergency room visits to more than 900 hospitals around the country. The database offers a representative sampling of visits to the approximately 5,000 emergency rooms in the United States.

The researchers gathered all of the data involving eye injuries from 2010 through 2013, and then zeroed in on injuries that, according to the medical coding system hospitals use to describe the reasons behind emergency room visits, had occurred during sports or physical activities like recreational cycling. Eye injuries can include painful corneal abrasions, blunt trauma and penetrating injuries, inflamed iris, fracture of the eye socket, swollen or detached retinas, traumatic cataract and blood spilling into the eye's anterior chamber.

About 30,000 sports-related eye injuries were treated each year at the emergency rooms participating in the database, the researchers found. A large majority of these injuries occurred in people younger than age 18, and quite a few in children younger than age 10.

The sport most likely to result in harm to the eye was basketball, the researchers found, accounting for more than a quarter of the injuries. Baseball and softball were, together, the second most common cause, followed, among boys, by air guns. Team sports and other physical activities also carry an inherent risk of injury. Even experienced athletes can slip, stumble, collide with balls or posts or opponents or teammates or the ground, and in multiple other ways, harm themselves. But to the surprise of the researchers, according to the NYT article, cycling was one of the most frequent contributors, as was soccer, especially among girls.

“Sports-related eye injuries can be quite serious,” said Dr. R. Sterling Haring, a doctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins and the University of Lugano in Switzerland, who led the study. The injuries also are likely to be far more numerous than in this study, he said. “We had data only from emergency rooms and not visits to eye doctors, urgent care facilities or general practitioners, which most likely would have doubled or tripled the totals.”

The results from the study suggest that anyone involved with youth sports should be vigilant about protecting young people’s eyes by ensuring they wear protective eyewear. In fact, 90% of all sports-related eye injuries can be prevented with proper eye protection. Lenses should be made of polycarbonate and have an American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) label, indicating they meet the standards of the ASTM for the specific sport. Polycarbonate eyewear is 10 times more impact resistant than other plastics, according to the National Eye Institute.

"The good news is that sports-related eye injuries are easily preventable just by simply wearing the correct eye protection," said Hugh R. Parry, president and CEO of Prevent Blindness America. "Unfortunately, only 15% of children and 33% of adults reported that they consistently do that.”

Not only is safety and healthy vision a concern for all sponsors of sports activities, but also the financial impact is great. Sports-related eye injuries cost between an estimated $175 and $200 million annually. Putting the right safety measures in place prevents injuries and reduces liability exposures for sports and athletic programs and organizations.

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Sources: New York Times, Prevent Blindness America, National Eye Institute

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