Sports injuries called leading cause of vision loss in children

Sports are about fun and games, but about 30,000 people in the U.S. go to emergency departments each year with sports-related eye injuries, a new study suggests.

Basketball, baseball and paintball top sport-related causes of eye injuries for males

Steve Nash comes off the court in 2010 after taking an elbow to his eye when the Canadian was playing basketball for the Phoenix Suns. Eye injuries are a significant cause of illness and disability in Canada and the U.S. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Sports are about fun and games, but about 30,000 people in the U.S. go to emergency departments each year with sports-related eye injuries, a new study suggests.

Eye injuries are a significant cause of illness and disability in both the U.S. and Canada.

"We believe that sports eye injuries are the largest cause of vision loss in children," said Keith Gordon, vice-president of research at CNIB, a Toronto-based non-profit that provides support services for the visually impaired.

In this week's issue of the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, U.S. and Swiss researchers analyzed data on 30 million emergency department visits across the U.S. from 2010 to 2013 to look at the burden of sports-related eye trauma.

The incidence peaked during adolescent years.

The investigators found basketball (23 per cent), baseball or softball (14 per cent) and shooting air guns or paintball guns (12 per cent) were the Top 3 causes of sports-related eye injuries among males.

"For basketball, it's been known for a while that this is a serious cause of eye injuries," said study author R. Sterling Haring, of the Centre for Healthcare Quality and Patient Safety at the University of Lugano in Switzerland.

In basketball, the injuries can result from a direct hit to the eye or when someone goes up for shot or rebound and they're elbowed, Haring said. "It can break bones, it can break nasal bones near the eye. It can be a serious injury."

In baseball, there's less human-to-human contact, but balls travelling at speeds of up to 145 km/h come near the eye.

Peer pressure interferes

Although most injuries resulting from sports-related activities were superficial, more than one-fifth of baseball-related injuries fractured the bones around the eye's orbit, which can cause serious problems.

Carter Nattrass, 16, knows that first hand. While waiting in line to catch a pop fly during a practice when he was nine, his friend called out to watch out. Just as Carter turned around, the ball smacked him in the right eye.

It was originally thought to be a shiner, but the Toronto teen has had nine surgeries to try to correct the damage. The sight in that eye still isn't back to normal.

When Carter Nattrass was nine years old, he was hit in the eye by a pop fly during a practice. (CBC)

"It's really blurry now because it has silicone in it," Carter said. "It's holding the retina against the wall. The centre of my vision is completely black and the top and bottom is completely black, too."

In the study, air gun injuries tend to happen on weekends outside of school-sponsored sports, Haring said. Most of the injuries, 81 per cent, occurred to males.

The solution, wearing polycarbonate eye protection, is tried and true. In elite hockey for instance, injuries declined substantially visors were introduced, Haring noted. But that hasn't helped for non-organized recreational sporting activities.

"With male athletes, I'm sure that there's a belief that, hey, you're looked upon as being a bit of a wuss if you wear protection," said Gordon. "But we know that is not the case."

Injury unimaginable, mother says

Among females, baseball or softball (19 per cent) was the most common cause of injury, following by cycling (11 per cent) and soccer (10 per cent).

"We tend to think of soccer as leading to injuries of knees or legs but nobody ever thinks of the potential for eye injuries in soccer," Gordon said.

Carter's mother, Christine Nattrass, said the family was proactive about their son's health and he always wore helmets. He now also dons protective glasses when playing sports, which include high-level hockey to soccer, snowboarding, lacrosse and golf. 

"It's unimaginable," she said. "Just talking about it makes me really emotional. You know you just can't imagine something like this happening to your kid."

She hopes sports glasses get added to the checklist of equipment for sports.

"We need to progress and we need to change with the times."

The Public Health Agency of Canada said between Jan. 1, 2012 and Sep. 1, 2016, among those 18 years of age and younger who went to participating emergency departments, a total of 106,151 cases of sports and recreation-related injuries were recorded. Of these, 1,134 (1.1 per cent) were eye injuries.

With files from CBC's Christine Birak