July 13, 2020

Protective eyewear for sports

The days before car seats for babies and toddlers, seat belts, even bicycle helmets now seem unreal and the danger of not using them curiously obvious. In this decade, most of us wouldn’t dream of holding a baby on our lap in the car, packing the back of the station wagon with as many first graders as will fit or sending our child down the bike path without head protection because the well publicized consequences are unthinkable. The difference between how we used to live and how we live now is simple knowledge. Now we know.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20. However, history can help us open our eyes to newer concerns. The ever-growing occurance of sports-related eye injuries deserves our attention now. We used to worry exclusively about small balls that could fit within the orbital bone — the bone framing the eye socket. But bigger balls can also cause significant injury. From reparable to irreparable, large balls account for a range of eye injuries, some leaving a devestating and permanent loss of vision. For instance, whacks to the side of the head at the temple can detach the retina and a full face blow can scratch or tear the cornea or actually rupture the globe.

My colleagues and I are seeing more and more sports-related eye injuries. Benjamin Sweeney, a senior from Belfast Area High School, ranks among the lucky for his recovery from a soccer ball blow to his right eye a year ago. A dedicated swimmer, Benjamin was only joining a casual game of soccer during a leadership camp. A ball came at him and he took the hit directly on his eye. For several hours his vision was entirely blacked out. Once his sight returned he experienced streaks of light and floaters — specks that seemed to float in his field of vision. Surgery repaired the problem — a hole breaking through the retina — but it will still be months before the floaters are expected to quiet down, if they ever do.

Benjamin’s luck is relative. While his vision was saved he may watch the world through a haze of floaters for the rest of his life. Without widespread use of protective eyewear, many other children are destined to face their futures with impaired vision.

Soccer is of particular concern because of its increasing popularity. Young children are at special risk because of the fearless way in which they play and their relative lack of skill and control. Risk multiplies when the soccer field moves indoors. Outside the wide open space seems to absorb the energy. Indoors, the ball comes back at you, similar to the dynamic in a racquetball court.

Sports are here to stay. The solution comes not in sacrificing a sport but in awareness and protection. Protective sports eyewear should now be on the essential equipment list for soccer and other physical activities. The goggles fit closely to the head, conforming to the orbital bones at the temples, with shatter-resistant polycarbonite lenses. The fit is key. With the proper fit the goggles essentially become one with the head, thereby deflecting the blows without bearing uncomfortably into the body. An additional plus is the goggles are vented so they won’t steam up and they are indestructible — you’d have to back over them in your car to do them in.

Getting a new safety measure to take will be challenging. First of all, image matters. Kids won’t comply if they feel nerdy, so the eyewear needs to look good. Protective eyewear makers understand this and use “cool colors” to appeal to kids but, like bicycle helmets, there has to be parental buy-in and reinforcement. Second, a good product costs money, running in the $40 to $50 range — enough to be an obstacle for many people.

Image and money are two tough issues to overcome but the importance of eye protection is a worthy effort. A coalition comprised of Eye Center Northeast, the Bangor Optical Center and HealthShare and Eastern Maine Charities of Eastern Maine Healthcare, have teamed up to bring attention to the necessity for eye protection. Starting small, the Eye Safety Project campaign will focus on one community in the greater Bangor area, working with that local recreation department to pilot a program.

Liberty Optical, maker of Rec Specs protective eyewear, is supplying the protective eyewear. Bangor Optical will professionally fit the eyewear and provide Rec Spec prescription lenses for children requiring glasses. Eastern Maine Charities is funding the project and HealthShare is administering the program. With good community response, our group hopes to gain funding and fuel interest for expanding the program into additional communities.

There is a safer way to play. Eye specialists across the country are urging parents, coaches and recreation directors to think about eyes on our children’s playing fields. First awareness, then protective eyewear. Help us make it happen. For more information on the Eye Safety Project contact 973-7321.

Jean Tibbetts, M.D. is an eye physician and surgeon with Eye Center Northeast in Bangor.

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