All eyes on sports eye protection

March 26, 2019 Providence Health Team

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the best players in National Basketball Association history. He won the league's MVP award six times, played on six championship teams and retired after 20 seasons, getting inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1995.

But Abdul-Jabbar is remembered by many for something that had nothing to do with basketball.

It was his goggles.

An opponent accidentally scratched the 7-foot-2 center’s left cornea in 1968 when Abdul-Jabbar played collegiately for the UCLA Bruins. His eye was scratched again in 1974 when he was playing for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. He sat out 16 games. When he returned, he was wearing goggles that might have been appropriate for a motorcycle sidecar. He wore goggles for the rest of his playing career except for a spell during the 1979-80 season.

By the time he’d reached retirement, his eyewear had a sleek, professional look. And they’d done their job. No flailing hands under the basket ever scratched the big man’s corneas again.

April is Sports Eye Safety Month, as designated by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. This is a good time to acknowledge the example set by Abdul-Jabbar so many years ago, and also marvel at how far safety eyewear has advanced since he wore his goggles.

The potential for eye injuries in sports is abundant: A softball skips off a rock and aims for the face and not a glove, a basketball player’s pinky pokes an opponent’s eye, a hockey stick swings errantly.

About 100,000 doctor visits a year can be attributed to sports-related eye injures. According to the ophthalmology academy, most of these injuries are preventable if participants wear eye protection. For example, traumatic eye injuries fell 67 percent among high school field hockey players after eye protection became mandatory, the academy says.

Regular eyeglasses won’t offer sufficient protection, primarily because of the lens material. Instead, shatterproof polycarbonate lenses are the appropriate choice for sports such as basketball, racquet sports, soccer and field hockey. Face shields for protective sports helmets of all sorts, such as those used in hockey and football, also should be made of polycarbonate.

Eye protection should meet the American Society of Testing and Materials standards. That organization has broken down the types of acceptable eyewear that should be worn in selected sports.

April, in addition to its special designation by the ophthalmology academy, is a harbinger of spring as well as baseball and softball. Those sports are especially hazardous for young players’ eyesight. Baseball is a leading cause of eye injuries among American children 14 years old and younger

What kind of eye injuries are possible in baseball or most any other sport, including hockey and basketball? Several, including orbital fracture, corneal abrasion, hyphemas (injuries to the iris, which can lead to glaucoma), and detached retina. Eye injuries in general are the leading cause of blindness in children.

The National Eye Institute says the top culprit for sports-related eye injuries among 15- to 24-year-olds is basketball. On top of that, approximately 13,500 of sports-related eye injuries result in permanent loss of sight.

But protective eyewear is doing the job for which it is intended, the institute says, saving eyesight and saving money. 

Consider that in the U.S., doctors see more than 100,000 patients a year for treatment of sports-related eye injuries that total more than $175 million. Eye protection, the institute says, is an undeniable cost-effective success at preventing injury. In hockey alone, about $10 million a year is saved in insurance expense by the use of face shields on helmets.

In order to assure your eyes are protected, says the organization Prevent Blindness, purchase a pair of sports eyeguards — they are modestly priced, and eyeguards with prescription lenses are also available — ideally in consultation with an eye doctor and your health care provider. Find a Providence St. Joseph Health provider near you:

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Need care quickly for common sports injuries like sprains, cuts and scrapes? Book a visit online at your neighborhood Providence Express Care clinic:

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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