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All About Eye Injuries


The number of athletes who suffer sports-related eye injuries varies from 40,000 to 600,000 yearly (depending on who reports the numbers). Even at the low end of estimated injuries, eye injuries are much too common, and the majority of injuries are preventable. Sports safety experts agree that eye protection should be a major concern for athletes, coaches, and parents of athletes who play high-risk sports.

Paul Spinelli / Getty Images

How Eye Injuries Happen

Most sports-related eye injuries are caused by a blow to the eye. Examples of blunt trauma injuries are a broken bone under the eyeball (orbital blowout fracture), a broken or ruptured eyeball, and a detached retina. Bruised eyes and eyelids look bad, but they are usually less serious than other blunt trauma eye injuries, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

According to a British Journal of Sports Medicine report, one-third of all blowout fractures are sustained while playing sports. While a blowout fracture is a serious injury, it may not be as gruesome as the term implies. It's a fracture of the eye socket. The fracture can happen in two ways. A blow to the eye can cause internal pressure that cracks the thin wall of the orbit, or the bone is struck hard enough to make it crack and buckle. Getting hit by a baseball, tennis ball, knee, elbow or fist all provide enough force to break the bone and the object doing the hitting is usually slightly larger than the orbital opening. The eyeball is damaged only 10-25 percent of the time.

Other eye injuries are caused by objects that penetrate or cut the eyeball. They are less common in sports, but can happen when an athlete’s glasses break during practice or competition or when someone sticks a finger into another person’s eye.

Damage by exposure to sunlight’s ultraviolet rays may not be considered sports injuries, but they are very common in snow skiing, water skiing, and other water sports.

Eye Injuries by the Numbers

Number of sports-related eye injuries each year, according to Tri-Service Vision Conservation and Readiness Program.

Number of sports-related eye injuries that require emergency room care, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (1 every 13 minutes).

Estimated number of cases resulting in loss of sight, according to the Protective Eyewear Certification Council.

Percentage of sports eye injuries that could be prevented by wearing protective eyewear, according to the American Optometric Association.

Who’s At Risk of Eye Injuries

The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that baseball and basketball account for the majority of eye injuries. Injuries are classified as very high-risk (body contact and no protective eyewear), high-risk (using a ball, puck, stick or racquet, or playing a contact sport) and low-risk (no ball, puck, bat or racquet with no body contact).

Examples of very high-risk sports are boxing, wrestling, and contact martial arts. High-risk activities included baseball, basketball, hockey, football, lacrosse, tennis, and other racquet sports, fencing, and water polo. Low-risk sports are track and field, swimming, gymnastics, and cycling.


  • Eye pain
  • Loss of vision or double vision
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Bleeding, bruising, cuts, wounds
  • Headaches
  • Unequal pupil size
  • Burning or stinging sensation
  • Sensation of a foreign object in the eye

Initial Treatment

  • For blunt trauma injuries, apply a cold compress to reduce pain and swelling. Don't apply pressure and see a doctor immediately.
  • Go to an emergency room if you have a black eye, eye pain, or difficulty seeing with the injured eye.
  • For objects on the eye or eyelid, have a person (with clean hands) examine the eye in a well-lighted area.
  • If the object is visible, gently flush or rinse the eye with water.
  • Don't rub the eye.
  • Don't try to remove a foreign object embedded in your eye.
  • For eye cuts or blows, gently apply a cold compress and seek medical help.

How to Avoid Eye Injuries

It’s worth repeating: 90 percent of sports eye injuries could be prevented by wearing protective eyewear. Wear certified protective sports eyewear for protection against injury and ultraviolet light rays. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends the following American Society for Testing and Materials Standards (ASTM) eye protectors for selected sports:

  • Baseball – ASTM F910
  • Basketball - ASTM F803
  • Bicycling – helmet plus streetwear
  • Boxing – not permitted in sports
  • Lacrosse (women) – ASTM F803
  • Lacrosse (men) – face mask attached to helmet
  • Football – polycarbonate eye shield attached to helmet
  • Ice Hockey – ASTM F513
  • Paintball – ASTM F1776
  • Racquet sports – ASTM F803
  • Skiing – F659
  • Soccer – ASTM F803
  • Soccer – F803
  • Track and Field – streetwear with polycarbonate lenses
  • Water polo/swimming – swim goggles with polycarbonate lenses

Jim Brown, Ph.D. has written 14 books on health, medicine, and sports. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Post, Sports Illustrated for Women and Better Homes & Gardens. He also writes for the Duke School of Medicine, UCLA School of Medicine, Cleveland Clinic and Steadman-Hawkins Research Foundation.

Tags: Injury, Pain, Injury Prevention


  1. American Academy of Family Physicians
  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology
  3. American Optometric Association
  4. British Journal of Sports Medicine
  5. Medical News Today (April 2, 2008)