Protect your eyes in sports--just like you do in combat

By David J. Hilber, Doctor of Optometry, U.S. Army Public Health CommandJuly 1, 2014

Sports safety
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Sports are an everyday activity for many Americans and for many Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. Sports are also a leading cause of eye injuries, but not an activity where use of safety eyewear has completely taken hold.

The military uses a variety of sports activities to aid in physical fitness training and to stimulate competition. Increased participation in sports has been accompanied by an increase in injuries in general and eye injuries in particular.

Sports and eye injuries

Prevent Blindness America, or PBA reports that more than 40,000 athletes suffer an eye injury while playing sports every year. And, every 13 minutes, an emergency room in the United States treats a sports-related eye injury. PBA has estimated that 90 percent of all eye injuries are preventable, including sports-related eye injuries. A research article on sports eye injuries from PBA estimates that more than 100,000 eye injuries occur annually. Another specialist in sports eye injuries reports that over 42,000 of those injured require a visit to an emergency room for care.

In the Department of Defense, during the period of 2000--2012, among active-duty service members, sports accounted for 8 percent overall and 5 percent of inpatient treated eye injuries where the cause was reported. In nearly all of these cases, no protective eyewear was worn.

Which sports cause the most eye injuries?

According to Prevent Blindness America, around 6,000 Americans report eye injuries each year from basketball--making it the leading cause of sport-related eye injuries and the leading cause of all eye injuries among people over the age of 15. The most common types of eye injuries from basketball are abrasions caused by fingers (which is why it is recommended that players use protective eyewear that meets ASTM F803 standards).

Water and pool activities are the second leading cause, followed by guns (air, BB etc.), which are the leading cause of eye injuries in people aged 14 and under. Baseball/softball and exercise/weightlifting round out the top five.

Preventing eye injuries from sports

Just as with military and industrial activities, it is important to have the right safety eyewear. With sports it is important to note that in some cases specific types of eyewear are needed to fully protect the eye. National standards for protective eyewear developed by ASTM International exist for a number of sports programs. Many sports organizations have also developed requirements to wear protective equipment for participation in their sports programs.

An example of the effectiveness of a sports-sponsored protective eyewear policy can be found within amateur hockey. In 1974, the Canadian Amateur Association required that all amateur players wear full face protectors. Throughout the next nine years, the average number of facial and eye injuries went from 257 the first year to zero in 1983. In 1979, the NCAA ruled that all collegiate hockey players must wear certified face shields. This ruling reduced facial and eye injuries by nearly 99 percent.

What protection is generally accepted for commonly played sports? Here is a partial list of suggested eye protection from ASTM International:

•Baseball and softball: Polycarbonate face shield (attached to helmet) in combination with sports spectacles with polycarbonate lenses worn under the face shield for batting and running bases. ASTM F910-04(2010) covers eye and face protection for youth players (batting/base running). ASTM F803-11 covers protection for all other players (fielding).

•Basketball: Sports eye guard with polycarbonate lenses and side shields. Frames without side shields are not recommended because of the possibility of a finger entering the open spaces in the frame and injuring the eye.

•Football: Polycarbonate shield attached over a wire face guard. Sports spectacles with polycarbonate lenses under the shield will provide additional protection.

•Ice Hockey and Field Hockey: Protectors meeting ASTM F513-00(2007) and F1587-99(2005) standards for eye and face protection for ice hockey players. ASTM F2713-09 covers players of field hockey.

•Paintball: Protectors meeting ASTM F1776-10 apply for paintball players.

•Skiing (Alpine): Protectors meeting ASTM F659-10 applies to participants in alpine skiing.

•Racquet Sports: Protectors meeting ASTM F803-11 applies to players of racquet sports. The U.S. Army Public Health Command's Tri-Service Vision Conservation and Readiness Program recommends only protectors with polycarbonate lenses for racquet sports.

•Soccer: Sports spectacles with polycarbonate lenses are recommended.

Players of any sport with potential to cause eye injury should wear protective eyewear designed for that sport. Polycarbonate lenses must be used with protectors that meet or exceed the requirements of ASTM International. Individuals with only one functional eye should always wear sports spectacles with polycarbonate lenses if there is the slightest chance of injury to the eye. Polycarbonate eyewear is 10 times more impact resistant than other plastics, according to the National Eye Institute.

Note that in deployed settings Military Combat Eye Protection spectacles, with the retention strap on, provide a good alternative form of eye protection when ASTM items are not available. All it takes is a random elbow or swipe of a fingernail across the eye during that platoon basketball tournament to take you out of the action. Stay in the fight--wear your eyepro!

Related Links:

U.S. Army Public Health Command

ASTM International