By Kerry Grens
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Eye injuries among female lacrosse players dropped dramatically after US Lacrosse, the governing board for the sport, required protective eyewear in 2004, according to a new study.
"I am impressed, but not surprised," said Dr. Stuart Dankner, a pediatric ophthalmologist who served on the eye safety committee of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Dankner, who was not involved in the new study, said that eye protection has reduced injuries in hockey, baseball and other sports.
"It's just a shame that it took so long" to become mandated for women's lacrosse, he added.
Men's lacrosse, which is considered a collision sport, introduced eye gear before the women's game, which is a non-contact sport.
Dankner told Reuters Health that he has treated cases of severe eye injury among girls who played lacrosse, either from getting smacked with the stick, colliding with another player, or getting hit with the ball.
In 2005, after urgings from the American Academy of Ophthalmology and other groups, US Lacrosse required that girls and women wear eye protection.
The new study, funded by US Lacrosse, tracked eye injuries among 25 high school girls lacrosse teams for four years before the mandate and six years after the mandate.
From 2000 to 2003, there were 22 eye injuries, and from 2004 to 2009 there were just five. That corresponds to one injury per player per 10,000 practices and games versus 1.6 per 100,000.
Four of the five injuries that occurred after the eyewear requirement happened while the girls were not wearing the protective gear. The fifth injury involved eye inflammation.
"As long as the athletes are wearing (the eyewear), it seems to be doing what we hope it would," said lead author Andrew Lincoln, the director of sports medicine research at MedStar Health Research Institute in Baltimore.
Other injuries to the face and head also went down, from 33 before the mandate to 21 after.
"We were very pleased to see that," Lincoln told Reuters Health. "There was concern there would be more aggressive play and more injuries (because of the protective gear), and that turned out not to be the case."
Concussions, however, increased, from 38 before the mandate to 86 after.
Lincoln said he doesn't think that's because of rougher play, but rather because of a greater awareness across all sports of the symptoms of concussion.
"The comparison periods that we're looking at coincide with this dramatic increase in the recognition of the signs and symptoms of concussion," he said.
Dr. Ferenc Kuhn, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who also served on the Academy's Eye Safety Committee, agreed that protective eyewear is unlikely to increase the risk of concussion.
"I have never encountered or heard of behavior change in athletes or in the general population just because one part of the body has a reduced risk of injury due to protection," Kuhn wrote in an email to Reuters Health.
He added that the style of the eye gear should not obscure players' vision, causing them to make errors.
Dankner said he'd like to see women's lacrosse also require players to wear helmets.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/vrtUoS The American Journal of Sports Medicine, online December 8, 2011.
(Corrects paragraph 2 and 17 to note that the experts no longer sit on the committee in story posted on Dec 16, 2011)