Young girl wearing protective goggles Every year, thousands of children and teens sustain serious eye injuries while playing sports. According to the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), eye injuries are the leading cause of blindness in children in the United States, and most eye injuries among school-age children are sports related.

Ayesha Malik, OD, pediatric optometrist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), has a front-row view of the problem. Young athletes with eye injuries often end up as patients at CHOP.

“Eye injuries can occur in any place and at any time,” Dr. Malik says. “But sports present a special risk, especially for boys.” Boys between the ages of 11 and 15 are five times as likely as girls to sustain eye injuries serious enough to require hospital treatment.

What sports present the biggest risks? Surprisingly, basketball, where blows from elbows, shoulders and knees can cause blunt force eye trauma, and fingers can do damage. Baseball and softball follow closely behind, with batted balls causing many more eye injuries than thrown balls. Hockey (ice and street), racquetball and squash also generate large numbers of eye injuries. Football, where helmets with protective face visors are standard, is considered a moderate risk when it comes to eye injuries.

The importance of eye protection

For eye doctors who treat the results of these injuries, it is frustrating that more attention isn’t paid to the risk. Parents know to equip their kids with helmets, knee and elbow pads, shin guards, and even mouth guards, but most aren’t aware of the importance of eye protection.

“Many parents think that ordinary glasses provide eye protection when playing sports,” says Dr. Malik. “It’s true that children’s glasses are made with polycarbonate lenses. But the frames are easily broken, and the pieces can cause serious eye injury. Kids with ordinary glasses and contacts are actually at greater risk of sports eye injury than kids without.”

Dr. Malik urges parents to find out about appropriate protective eyewear for their children’s sports, and to get their kids to wear them. Good sources for this information include the National Eye Institute and the nonprofit Prevent Blindness.

Recommendations for specific eyewear varies by sport and even by position. For baseball, for example, a helmet with a polycarbonate faceguard is recommended when batting. But the greater risk for eye injury comes from batted balls while fielding, when sports goggles should be worn. Sports goggles provide protection for many of the high-risk sports, such as basketball, squash, racquetball and handball. In hockey, lacrosse and football, a helmet with full-face protection shields the eyes from injury.

When shopping for protective eyewear, look for the label “ASTM F803 approved,” an indication the item has been performance tested and is sturdy enough to withstand the impact sustained during sports. If your child wears prescription glasses, ask about protective eyewear where you purchase glasses. They probably won’t be on display with the fashion frames, but are available when you ask.

Getting your child to wear protective eyewear

Getting kids to wear eye protection when playing sports is the next challenge, at least until protective eyewear becomes the standard. Let your child’s coach know that you want your child to wear eye protection. You might share this article and information about eye sports injuries from the National Eye Institute or the Vision Council's sports eye safety report, and encourage the coach and the league to consider making protective eyewear the rule. You can also model the practice for your child by wearing protective eyewear when you play sports yourself.

What to do if your child suffers an eye injury

If your child does suffer an eye injury when playing sports, see an eye doctor right away. Some eye injuries are obvious and require immediate attention in an emergency room. Others, especially those caused by blunt force trauma, may cause damage inside or at the back of the eye where it isn’t as apparent but might be just as urgent. Signs of eye injury requiring medical attention include:

  • Pain
  • Eyelid swelling or bruising
  • Eyelid/eyebrow cuts
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision or loss of vision
  • Double vision
  • Inability to move the eye to one side, or up or down
  • The sensation that a shadow or dark curtain is blocking vision
  • Floaters — light or dark spots, clumps or strings that float around in the field of vision
  • Flashes of light
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