Alarming rise in the number of patients treated for eye injuries caused by paintballs

As part of Eye Injury Prevention month in July, the American Academy of Ophthalmology -- the Eye M.D. Association -- warns the public about the dangers of paintballs to the eyes. Ophthalmologists (Eye M.D.s) are reporting an alarming rise in the number of patients they are treating for eye injuries caused by paintballs.

Stephen Pflugfelder, M.D., a spokesperson for the Academy, said he has seen a rise in paintball eye injuries over the past five years.

According to a study published earlier this year in Pediatrics, the number of paintball eye injuries treated in emergency departments has risen from 545 in 1998 to more than 1,200 in 2000. Paintballs are used in an increasingly popular form of war games.

Most of the injuries seen are predominantly in boys playing informally in unsupervised settings without eye protection. Some injuries also occur to those using protective eyewear, but remove the eyewear for cleaning. "I have taken care of a number of very severe and blinding paintball injuries," said Dr. Pflugfelder, who is also Professor and Chair of the ophthalmology department at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. "If someone gets hit in the eye because he or she is not wearing protective eyewear, there is a high likelihood the eye will be lost."

Dr. Pflugfelder has treated injuries including dislocated lenses, traumatic cataracts, hyphemas, traumatic glaucoma, retinal detachments, choroidal ruptures and vitreous hemorrhages -- all caused by paintballs. "Unfortunately, most of the eyes I have treated for paintball eye injuries have not done well." Sherri Purpura's 18-year-old son, Joseph, knows first hand about paintball eye injuries. He was injured when a paintball accidentally hit him in the eye.

The injury resulted in the severe swelling and bleeding of the eye. "Our ophthalmologist was up front with us," Mrs. Purpura said. "He warned us there may be serious and even permanent damage to Joseph's eye." Jon Gieser, M.D., a retina-vitreous specialist at the Wheaton Eye Clinic, in Wheaton, Ill., and assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary in Chicago, was the ophthalmologist who treated Joseph following his eye injury. "The pressure in his eye was dangerously elevated. There was so much blood in the front of the eye that I couldn't see the back of his eye."

Dr. Gieser performed a procedure called an anterior chamber washout. One month later, Joseph's vision is 20/20. "I had anticipated he would not do as well as he has. He got a lucky break." "This is still going to affect Joseph's life for at least the next month or so," Mrs. Purpura said. "He's not allowed to work out. He can't lift heavy objects. He can't help his father in the family's dairy business."

Another one of Dr. Gieser's patients wasn't so lucky. The paintball cut his eye, leaving him with half of a cornea. Baltimore pediatric ophthalmologist Stuart Dankner, M.D., has treated several patients with paintball eye injuries. "These injuries often occurred during unorganized play with paintball guns and related equipment." Dr. Dankner said one of his patients, a 14-year-old boy, who suffered a hyphema -- or blood between layers of the cornea -- when the gas canister hose dislodged injuring the boy's eye and orbit. The boy was not wearing protective eyewear. Dr. Dankner said, "Paintball injuries can be as devastating to young, fragile eyes as a high-speed baseball. In my opinion, the fun playing paintball does not justify the potential vision-threatening risks of this dangerous sport."

According to the Academy, sports eye injuries are the leading cause of blindness in children. Any parent who has a child participating in sporting activities, including paintball war games, should first visit an eye care professional to have their child fitted with the appropriate protective eyewear. Game partipants should also be instructed to create a time-out rule by yelling "don't shoot" or something similar when they need to remove the protective eyewear for cleaning.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons -- Eye M.D.s -- with more than 27,000 members.

For more information about eye health care, visit the Academy's partner Web site, the Medem Network, at http://www.medem.com/eyemd. To find an Eye M.D. in your area, visit the Academy's site at http://www.aao.org.

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