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Docs: Protect Young Athletes' Eyes

With youth basketball season winding down and baseball looming, two influential physician groups are strongly recommending protective eye gear for young athletes in many organized sports.

Balls, bats, rackets and even elbows can cause serious and sometimes permanent eye injury, and children are particularly susceptible because of their aggressive playing style and lack of athletic maturity, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Ophthalmology say in a joint policy statement.

In 2000 alone, more than 42,000 sports and recreation-related eye injuries were reported nationwide, more than 70 percent of them in people under age 25, the groups said.

Eye protectors could reduce the risk of significant eye injury in sports by at least 90 percent, they said.

The policy lists tennis as a moderate-risk sport for eye injury, while baseball and basketball are high-risk and are associated with the most eye injuries in athletes aged 5 to 24.

Recommended eye gear includes helmets with face guards for baseball batters and base runners; and safety goggles for basketball, racket sports and soccer. Fashion eyeglasses are not acceptable, the policy says.

While the number of eye injuries in youth sports is relatively small given the number of participants, "the long-term complications and disability can be great and should not be taken lightly," said Dr. David Bernhardt of the pediatrics academy's committee on sports medicine and fitness.'

"Similar to bicycle helmets, ski helmets, mouth guards and other interventions, this is one more way parents and medical providers can decrease the risk of injury in sport," Bernhardt said.

The authors acknowledge that it might take seeing a teammate get injured to convince kids that protective eye gear is important.

"There's a lot of professional athletes who wear them, so they're not really 'nerdy' glasses," said Dr. Joel Brenner, also on the pediatrics group's committee.

The policy appears in the March issue of Pediatrics, being released Monday. It updates one the groups issued in 1996 and includes new information on currently available protective eyewear that conforms with American Society for Testing and Materials standards.

The recommendations focus on sports deemed high-risk and moderate-risk for eye injury.

Besides baseball and basketball, high-risk sports listed include air rifling, paintball, lacrosse, ice and field hockey, racquetball, fencing, boxing and full-contact martial arts. Moderate-risk sports include football, badminton, soccer, volleyball, water polo, golf and fishing.

Many schools and organized youth sports teams do not require protective eye gear.

Little League baseball requires helmets but not face guards for offensive players, and has no eye-wear rules for fielders.

"Our statistics don't show a reason for mandating their use," said Little League spokesman Lance Van Auken. "Less than two-tenths of 1 percent of Little Leaguers are injured in any given year," and injuries have been decreasing in recent years because of an emphasis on safety, he said.

By Lindsey Tanner