Retinal Detachment in Sports

Football, hockey, baseball, and soccer play a vital role in many American lives. Chances are likely that you have played, are playing, or will play one of these sports during your lifetime. You may be a key player for your team, or perhaps you simply play a few games with your friends over the weekend.

While sports may be fun, they also come with risk of injury. Injuries on the field stop the clock and end careers before they begin. One of the dangers facing those who play contact sports is a detached retina. A hard hit to the head or eye can be the first step to loss of vision.

What Does the Retina Do?

The retina is a thin membrane at the back of the eye that has light-sensitive cells, also known as rods and cones.

The rods interpret black and white, and they allow us to see in low-light situations, which is particularly useful at night. The cones interpret color, functioning in the normal light of day.

Together, rods and cones in the retina transform the light we see into an image. The brain picks up this image and then tells us what we are seeing.

How Can a Retina Detach?

A retina can separate from the eye in a number of ways. However, direct trauma to the head or eye is one of the most common injuries that leads to retinal detachment. This is problematic for contact sport athletes, as they have an increased likelihood of experiencing head trauma.

During retinal detachment, the adhesive which holds the retina in places pulls too tightly on the membrane, tearing or ripping it. This allows the fluid in the eye to squeeze behind the retina, pushing it further out of place.

If left untreated, the tear can worsen and lead to partial or complete blindness.

Who Is At Risk?

Athletes in these sports suffer increased rates of damage:

  • Wrestling
  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Boxing
  • Soccer
  • Baseball

Other risk factors include:

  • Those with a predisposition or family history of retinal detachments
  • Patients who have previously suffered from detachment
  • Patients with high blood pressure
  • People with diabetes
  • Those with nearsightedness

Signs of a Detached Retina

These are common signs of a detached retina:

  • Decreased vision
  • Increased discharge from the eye
  • Floaters or flashes of light
  • Swelling around the eye
  • Increased pain or redness

Immediately contact your ophthalmologist if you experience any of the above symptoms. With a retinal detachment, the quicker you seek help, the quicker you return to the game.

Reattaching a Retina

Suffering a detached retina is a serious medical condition. It is not something you can treat with ice or wearing a patch. Medication is incapable of reattaching a damaged retina; surgery is the only option.

An ophthalmologist typically uses one of three types of surgeries to repair an athlete’s retina. Each surgery achieves the same result but with slightly different methods.

    • Pneumatic retinopexy: This surgery uses a small gas bubble to add pressure to the area of the retina that is bulging or detached. The bubble pushes against the area and forces the retina back into its correct position. The eye doctor then uses a laser to reattach the retina with the back of the eye. This is a simple procedure often performed in a doctor’s office.
    • Vitrectomy: This procedure removes the vitreous gel from the middle of the eye. The ophthalmologist will then use a laser to reattach the retina to the eye. The scar tissue created from the laser will then hold the retina in place. Once this takes place, the eye doctor will replace the removed gel with special oil or gas. This surgery is more intensive than the first and may require an over night stay in a hospital.
    • Scleral buckling surgery: During the operation, the eye doctor will sew a small sponge or plastic to the outside of the patient’s eye. This relieves the pressure on the eye, allowing the retina to resettle in its correct location. The ophthalmologist then uses heat, cold, or light to scar the material in place. This surgery takes between one and two hours.


Life after Surgery

Injury on the court or on the field can leave an athlete benched for more than a few games. Athletes who experience a retinal detachment may feel tempted to rush a recovery and participate in training before recommended.

However, if you want a speedy recovery, it is important to follow the ophthalmologist’s directions. For example, you will need to limit strenuous activities as you recover. Your eye doctor will discuss with you the importance of recuperation during this time. Added stress can reinjure your eye shortly after surgery.

Keep in mind that those who have detached a retina once are more vulnerable to experiencing another detachment. Talk to your eye doctor about how to protect yourself during physical activity to prevent another injury.