A basketball player grabs a rebound. A tennis lover rushes the net. A swimmer jumps in the water.
Then something unexpected happens. An elbow jabs the cornea. A ball strikes the face. An infection settles in the eye. The amateur athlete ends up sidelined — or worse.
Sports-related eye injuries, which result in more than 30,000 emergency room visits annually, typically involve children, teens and college athletes. But active adults are also susceptible to the same trauma, experts say. And older adults have added challenges associated with aging, such as deteriorating vision, reduced response time and diminished hand-eye coordination.
“When an eye injury occurs, it can be extremely painful, and you can lose sight permanently,” says Alan Reichow, a former college football player and professor emeritus at Pacific University's College of Optometry in Portland, Ore. “The sad thing is that most of these injuries can be prevented.”
Indeed, eye injuries aren’t just bad luck. Studies show that wearing protective eyewear and taking other basic precautions cuts the risk substantially.
“You could make an analogy to driving,” says Nick Belill whose Clio, Mich., optometry practice has been nationally recognized for its commitment to reducing youth sports-related eye injuries. “Who do we consider most at risk for car accidents? It’s the youngest drivers and oldest drivers, and it’s not a reach to make that connection to sports.”
But raising awareness is hard. Wearing everyday glasses while engaged in sports offers a false sense of security — they actually increase your risk because normal lenses can shatter if struck, and frames may splinter. “You just don’t realize that the eyewear you’re wearing on your head is potentially a weapon,” Reichow says. “When you get hit, the lens can just explode.”
That’s why doctors recommend protective gear. But don’t picture a bulky pair of goggles. The quality has vastly improved over the last 40 years, and both amateur and professional athletes wear their sports glasses regularly.
The eyewear, which can be ordered through an optometrist, costs more than a standard pair of glasses but less than high-end designer frames, according to Liberty Sport, an eyewear manufacturer specializing in protective frames and lenses that has partnered with the nonprofit advocacy group Prevent Blindness to promote sports eye safety. Special protective frames, made from impact-resistant nylon, may run from $150 to $175.
They should be paired with polycarbonate lenses that resist shattering, and it's recommended they be treated with an anti-fog coating. Protective frames with single-vision prescription polycarbonate lenses and anti-fog coating run about $250.
Then there’s sun protection: Even if you’re not engaging in contact or team sports, it’s important to wear UV-blocking sunglasses if your athletic pursuits take you outdoors. The lenses block the invisible ultraviolet rays that damage the retina. For golfers, runners and cyclists, it’s an easy preventive measure. The payoff? The preservation of what Reichow calls “precious vision."
Prevent eye injuries while playing sports
Basketball. If you think your weekend pickup game is harmless, note that several studies single out basketball as the most dangerous sport for the eye — which might come as a surprise given the size of the ball. But that’s not where the risk comes in, Reichow says. “It’s under the basket. It’s fingers and parts of the hands that come up in the eye.” Protective eyewear is a must.
Racket sports. Whether the game’s tennis, racquetball or the increasingly popular sport of pickleball, the danger is real. With a small, fast-moving ball, a blow to the eye can cause serious damage. “The bones won’t take the impact,” says Patti Fries, an assistant professor with the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Instead, the eyeball absorbs the energy. “I always want patients to wear safety glasses.”
Swimming and other water sports. Swimming is a great form of exercise, but it involves a threat to your eyes that’s too tiny to see.
Chemicals and bacteria can cause irritation and infections. And if you wear contact lenses, the threat’s even worse because lenses may absorb the contaminants. The solution is to wear airtight goggles. (Swimmers also face the risk of traumatic injury if they’re poked in the eye by other swimmers or during a water exercise class; googles can offer protection for that, too.)
Cycling. Riders should wear UV-blocking sunglasses and consider frames that block the wind, Fries says. Mountain bikers, in particular, can be hit by branches or debris, and need protective eyewear.
Skiing and other snow sports. The biggest risk on the slopes is snow blindness, caused by the reflection of ultraviolet light off the snow surface. Although its name is misleading — it’s not permanent blindness — the condition is painful. The solution: sports safety glasses or goggles offering UV protection. Reichow adds that it’s important to choose eyewear designed for sports use that can protect your eyes from ski poles and ski tips.