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An Athlete's Guide to Protecting Vision & Maintaining Eye Health

Posted on January 26th, 2022

Did you know that about 80% of perceptual input in sports stems from the eyes?

Optimal vision is an instrumental component of successfully playing most sports. But here’s the catch: Athletes—particularly those who engage in contact sports—are at a much higher risk for developing eye-related injuries. That’s why it’s important to be especially mindful of your eye health if you’re an athlete. 

To mark the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, we’ve crafted a complete athlete’s guide to protecting vision and maintaining eye health. Even if you’re not an athlete, knowing this information will be beneficial to you, too.

Why vision matters for athletes

Having optimal vision—including speedy visual information processing, hand-eye coordination, clarity of sight, and strong eye motor skills—is paramount when playing most sports. An athlete’s eyesight, which encompasses colour vision, depth perception, memory, and reaction time, can actually be strengthened with proper training.

Believe it or not, since eyes are so important to athletes, there is such a thing as sports vision trainers, whose job it is to improve and preserve athletes’ vision by using specific visual exercises and special equipment. Indeed, you can train and strengthen your eyes, which may, in turn, bolster your athletic performance. 

Sports-related eye risks 

First and foremost, athletes must be mindful of protecting their eyesight. While strengthening vision is possible, it’s more important to shield the eyes from injuries. 

Athletes face a number of unique risks, particularly as it pertains to eye injuries. Each sport carries different eye concerns, and in many cases, athletes are urged to wear protective gear to block ultraviolet light, blunt damage, or impact. The bottom line is that different sports demand different levels of eye protection, but regardless of the game, guarding your eyesight is essential.

Sports-related eye injuries 

Engaging in sports is one of the leading causes of ocular trauma. Some common sports-related eye injuries include: 

- Floaters

- Blunt abrasions

- Corneal abrasions

- Iritis 

- Detached retina 

- Detached vitreous humor

- Optic nerve damage 

- Macular hole 

- Central serous chorioretinopathy

Typically, individual sports leagues mandate their own safety recommendations and regulations that players are expected to abide by based on the unique risks of the sport. 

Here are a few popular sports, the risks associated with them, and protective measures that athletes should consider before playing:

Baseball 

Baseball is considered one of the most challenging sports for the eyes, given the size of the ball and the rate at which it travels through the air. Solid hand-eye coordination is key, and the ability to spot small objects at a distance is also important.

Naturally, baseball players run the risk of concussions and direct eye damage from bats and/or balls. Not to mention, since most games are outdoors, UV light (which can damage the cornea and retina), as well as exposure to dirt and dust, are added risks that can cause dry eye disease.

In terms of protective gear, helmets are obviously a must. Some players (even those with 20/20 vision) choose to wear some form of vision correction, like contact lenses, glasses, or goggles, to sharpen their vision and shield their eyes from dirt and damage. 

Football

Like baseball, concussions and eye injuries from contact with the ball are the two biggest risks. Being tackled can also pose a threat, as impact can damage the eye socket and the brain. There is also an elevated risk for concussions, which can cause symptoms such as double vision, loss of ability to change your level of focus, and more. 

Similarly to baseball, helmets are the most important form of eye (and head) protection when playing football. Players are also recommended to wear UV-and glare-protecting shields, as the stadium lights and the sun can be harmful to the eyes. 

Basketball 

The main difference between basketball and other contact sports is that helmets are not part of the uniform. Although games are usually played indoors (and therefore UV rays are not a risk), eye injuries are far more likely in basketball than in most other sports, and injuries commonly occur as a result of getting a finger in the eye. That being said, 90% of injuries can be prevented by wearing protective eyewear, such as polycarbonate safety glasses.

Hockey 

Eye injuries can happen during an ice hockey game. After all, there are pucks, large sticks and sharp skates involved. Fortunately, most hockey players wear helmets, though not all of them have visors—a critical protective measure. When it comes to protection in hockey, it’s worth noting that the most protective standard is a full face shield.

A 2015 study found that protective eyewear reduced injury threefold during field hockey games, and the same is likely true for ice hockey. So don’t just wear a helmet—wear a visor, too! 

Soccer

Soccer can get aggressive, and a direct blow to the eye from a soccer ball or hand could be detrimental to your vision health. To avoid ocular injuries, protective eyewear—such as safety glasses or goggles—offer a solid solution, particularly if you are playing professionally, and if you’re outdoors to minimize UV damage.

Skiing and snowboarding

Although snow skiing and snowboarding are relatively solo sports, there are still inherent eye-related risks. For one, winter glare (sun reflecting off snow or ice) can actually pose a serious problem, and exposure to UV rays can lead to snow blindness (also known as photokeratitis or, simply, sunburn to the eyes). Luckily, this is an easy fix: Make your life easier by opting for sunglasses or goggles when you hit the hills, and keep eye drops handy to combat dry eye. Plus, wear a helmet—it will not only protect your head and brain, but it will also shield your eyes from a harsh fall.

Squash

Squash is perhaps the most high-risk sport for the eyes, as the ball can fit directly into the eye socket. If a squash ball is thrown at or near the eye with a high degree of force, it can actually burst the eyeball, which, for obvious reasons, is something you want to avoid at all costs. As such, regardless of your skill levels, the use of protective eyewear is essential in order to safely engage in squash. 

General tips and tricks 

We could go on by listing additional sports and the risks you should be wary of while playing each one, but there are a few general rules that apply to all athletes—regardless of the sport they play or their skill level.

There are three central types of protection you should bear in mind when playing sports: 

1. Trauma prevention eyewear: Sporting some form of protective eyewear can considerably lessen your chances of getting an eye injury. Please note that prescription glasses are not necessarily protective, so consider investing in a pair of polycarbonate goggles, which you should wear both during practice and games to protect your eyes from trauma. 

2. Corrective eyewear: If you do have poor vision, make sure it is corrected while playing sports. Contact lenses (unlike glasses) have an unobstructed field of view, and therefore they can promote more stable eyesight. While glasses can fog up and cause collisions, contact lenses do not, making them the safer option for corrective eyewear. On the flip side, though, it is still recommended to wear protective goggles over the contact lenses in contact sports as the contacts offer no protection against injury. 

3. Light-blocking eyewear: UV-blocking glasses or contact lenses are important when playing sports outdoors, as tinted sunglasses can prevent damage to the retina and macula.

If you do find yourself with an eye injury while playing a sport, it is important to seek care from a healthcare provider immediately to assess the damage. Seeing a doctor sooner rather than later can mitigate further problems.

Don’t forget, scheduling a yearly eye exam is another important way to prevent yourself from injuring your eyes while engaging in sports. Your optometrist will be able to pinpoint any vision problems that could be hindering your athletic performance, allowing you to play as safely as possible. Schedule your appointment today!