Sports-Related Eye Injuries: What to Do After an Accident and When to See a Doctor

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, thousands of sports-related eye injuries occur each year in the United States. In April, we are recognizing Sports Eye Safety Month by sharing eye injury tips for little leagues and beyond.

Common Sports-Related Eye Injuries

The most common sports-related eye injuries include corneal abrasions, lacerations around the eye, and fractures to the eye socket.

Eye injuries are more common in contact sports or sports with projectiles, such as:

Contact sports, such as martial arts and boxing, also pose a high risk for serious eye injuries. 

Approximately 90% of eye injuries could be prevented with proper protective eyewear. When safety equipment isn’t properly utilized, the risk of eye injury significantly increases. 

Practicing Eye Safety in Sports

James C. O’Brien, MD, assistant professor of neuro-ophthalmology at Dean McGee Eye Institute, offers his advice for eye care first aid and what to do when a more serious eye injury occurs.

Dr. O’Brien says eye protection is important for athletes of any age, and especially for those with baseline eye or vision problems. He says parents and coaches can lead by example when practicing sports eye safety.

“Parents should encourage their children to wear safety eyewear to prevent potentially serious eye injuries and could help model and reinforce this behavior by wearing the eyewear themselves,” he says.

Safety glasses or goggles are appropriate for any contact sport or for any sport that involves projectiles. This means if there’s a ball, puck, or arrow flying in the air, it’s a good idea to use eye protection. Make sure you choose a pair of safety goggles or other eye protection with shatter-resistant polycarbonate lenses. For contact sports, such as ice hockey, football, and lacrosse, a helmet with a face mask or wire shield should also be worn.

Dr. O’Brien recommends making safety gear an integral part of a uniform. Consistency is key in reinforcing safety practices.

sports-related eye injuries infographic

First Aid for Minor Eye Injuries

Dr. O’Brien says appropriate first aid for minor bruises and scratches around the eye include cleansing visible wounds with sterile saline water or antiseptics—just be sure to keep antiseptics from getting into the eye itself.

“Gentle pressure with clean gauze or with an ice pack would also be appropriate—just avoid applying excessive pressure directly to the eyeball itself,” Dr. O’Brien says.

Always monitor the healing of an injury and seek medical attention if pain persists after several days or if its condition worsens.

Signs of Serious Eye Injury

“Severe, less-common injuries may include bleeding in the eye socket, called an orbital hemorrhage, or an outright rupture of the eyeball, which is called a ruptured or open globe,” Dr. O’Brien says.

Dr. O’Brien says there are a few telltale signs of a more serious eye injury, including profound and persistent loss of vision, severe swelling or bruising of the eyelids, or inability to open the eye. Double vision, severe redness, bleeding of the eye itself, an abnormal pupil, or a sensation of gushing fluid coming from the eye are also signs of a serious injury.

If you or your child experience any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

What to Do if You’ve Seriously Injured Your Eye

Nearly 30,000 sports-related eye injuries are treated in U.S. emergency rooms each year, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology

“Injuries that involve the eyeball itself may be more serious,” says Dr. O’Brien. “Consult a medical professional before applying medications or other treatments directly to the eye.”

In the case of a lacerated or ruptured eyeball, Dr. O’Brien cautions not to put any pressure on the injury as this can dramatically worsen the injury. Instead, he recommends applying an eye “shield” or a rigid, protective barrier over the eye and seeking immediate medical attention.

If a projectile or other object is accidentally lodged in the eye, do not touch or attempt to remove the object yourself. Immediately seek emergency medical help.

Eye Injury Treatments at Dean McGee Eye Institute

For eye exams, emergencies, or safety glasses or goggles, DMEI is here for you. Our staff provides exceptional care and expertise to every patient who comes through our doors, and as the physicians who provide emergency coverage at the state’s only Level One Trauma Center we are particularly well prepared to treat eye injuries. Request an appointment with one of our doctors today.