From major league baseball stadiums to small-town softball fields, athletes are competing against each other, building physical fitness, entertaining millions and teaching the value of hard work and teamwork.

But for more than 40,000 athletes each year, the game can be ruined by an errant finger or a misjudged catch. That’s the number of sports-related eye injuries that occur annually in the United States. Approximately one-third of eye-injury victims are children.

April is Sports Eye Safety Month, and through American Academy of Ophthalmology’s EyeSmart™ campaign, the Minnesota Academy of Ophthalmology (MAO) reminds the public that the only way to prevent a sports-related eye injury is for athletes to wear appropriate, sport-specific protective eyewear properly fitted by an eye care professional. Lenses made from polycarbonate materials provide the highest level of impact protection; they can withstand the impact of a ball or other projectile traveling at 90 miles per hour.

“Athletes need to use protective eyewear because eye injuries can be devastating,” said Edwin H. Ryan, M.D., and MAO president. “Eye injuries are one of the leading causes of visual impairment in children. The injuries range from abrasions of the cornea and bruises of the lids to internal eye injuries, such as retinal detachments and internal bleeding. Unfortunately, some of these young athletes end up with permanent vision loss and blindness.”

Many sports create risk for eye injuries, however, protection is available for many activities, including basketball, baseball, hockey, football, lacrosse, fencing, paintball and water polo, as well as racquetball, soccer and downhill skiing. “The solution is simple: wear eye protection anytime you are playing sports, especially those that involve small balls at high velocity,” said Dr. Ryan. “Most sporting leagues don’t require children to wear eye protection, so parents must insist that their children wear eye protection when they play. Parents also can set a good example by wearing eye protection when playing sports.”

Even a seemingly light blow can cause a serious eye injury. If a black eye, pain or visual problem occurs after a blow, contact your Eye M.D. or seek emergency medical help immediately.