Now that spring is here and Covid guidelines are easing up in many areas, more people are getting outside and participating in all sorts of recreational activities.
In this blog, I want to share some of the sports-related causes of eye injuries that I see in my ophthalmology clinic at Boulder Medical Center. Many of the tips that I offer are common sense, but as you know, taking extra care to protect our vision is critical to enjoying the activities we love here in Colorado.
Skiing and snow blindness
Snow blindness is one of the most common eye injuries that I see in my clinic. UV light can be particularly intense at higher altitudes, and the amount of UV light that impacts your eye almost doubles when it reflects off of snow. This concentrated UV light can damage the cornea’s epithelial cells, which causes redness, pain, light sensitivity, and blurry vision.
Preventing UV exposure is critical. Wear goggles while alpine skiing, sunglasses with UV protection when hiking or cross-country skiing, and glacier goggles when mountaineering. If snow blindness occurs, treat the condition with over-the-counter lubricating drops every few hours. This can improve symptoms and heal the cornea within a week. In any event, see an ophthalmologist for an eye evaluation as soon as you can. They may prescribe steroid or antibiotic drops in moderate to severe cases and can track any lasting damage.
Watch out for flying objects
Projectiles during recreation activities pose a significant safety threat to your eyes. Fortunately, most people understand the risks and avoid shooting at each other with BB guns or other objects, and the number of these injuries that I see in my clinic has decreased over the years. With that said, it’s important to remember that paintball guns pose a notable risk to the eye, and wearing protective goggles at all times is essential. The same is true for Nerf-type guns. I have seen many serious injuries in patients hit with Nerf bullets, including one who bet her boyfriend that he could not hit her in the forehead with one.
Wear protective lenses for ball sports. Always.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, one study found that basketball was the leading cause of sports-related eye injuries in the United States, followed by baseball, softball, racquetball, and hockey. I would add squash and lacrosse to that list, based on injuries that I see in my clinic. Wearing protective glasses or goggles constructed of shatterproof plastic (polycarbonate lenses) while playing these sports is mandatory.
I also see quite a few soccer players with eye injuries, especially those who play indoors. Unfortunately, due to the practice of “heading” the ball, wearing eyewear during soccer is not practical. Simply being aware of the risk can help prevent eye injuries.
Cyclists need quality eye protection too
The most common eye injury I see from cycling is exposure keratitis, which damages the cornea’s epithelial cells from wind and/or UV light. Cyclists with a propensity for dry eyes are at higher risk for this condition, so putting a lubricating drop in your eyes before and during your ride can be helpful.
Injury to the eyes from flying debris, insects, or branches when cycling is also common. Always wear sunglasses to prevent these injuries.
When to see an ophthalmologist
Ophthalmologists are eye physicians with advanced medical and surgical training. With all of these injuries, seek a medical evaluation and care from an ophthalmologist if you experience decreased vision, pain, redness, eye irritation, flashing lights, floaters (dark splotches in your vision), or other symptoms. Early intervention can prevent further injury and even vision loss.
About Ken Kreidl, MD
As a board-certified ophthalmologist, Dr. Kreidl provides vision exams; diagnoses and treats eye trauma and diseases; prescribes medications, and performs eye surgery.
Originally from San Francisco, he opened his ophthalmology Boulder Medical Center practice in 2004. Dr. Kreidl loves mountain biking and skiing with his family and was a nationally ranked tennis player before becoming dedicated to medicine.
He and his wife, Ryn, a pediatrician, have two children, Luke and Max.