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Paintball: More Dangerous Than Meets the Eye

Study finds game can cause serious vision problems, even blindness

MONDAY, Jan. 5, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Paintball, an increasingly popular sport modeled on military maneuvers that involves "shooting" your opponents with pellets containing water-soluble paint, can be deadly to your eyes.

Because the pellets are small, about the size of marbles, they can hit the eyes dead-on without being deflected by the surrounding bones in the socket, a new study reports.

That small size, combined with a muzzle velocity of up to 300 feet per second, about the speed of some bullets, means if the paint pellet hits the eye directly, it can cause serious damage, even vision loss, the researchers say.

"It's the only thing that you shoot that quickly that's made to be shot at a person," says study author Dr. David Listman, a pediatrician who works in emergency room medicine at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y. "No one would think of using a BB gun, for instance, against a friend."

After treating two teenage boys who suffered serious injuries after being shot in the eyes on Halloween several years ago, Listman began to study the incidences of eye injuries attributed to paintball. The results of his study appear in the January issue of Pediatrics.

The number of eye injuries treated in emergency rooms caused by paintball accidents more than doubled, from 545 in 1998 to 1,200 in 2000, Listman found. Nearly half of the accidents involved children aged 15 or younger, almost all boys. The injuries included bleeding between the lens and the iris, called hyphema; detached retinas; scratches to the cornea; and cataracts, he says.

Listman and his colleagues did find safety equipment has improved significantly in the last few years. Those who participate in the sport at designated sites must wear specially designed face masks that protect their eyes. However, he says, children and teens often play the game without the protective equipment.

"Kids and teens are much less likely to play in organized places and more likely to play in backyards or the woods and either don't think they're going to get hurt or don't have the foresight to use protection," he says.

"They should know that even though the paintballs are made to shoot at people, they can cause serious harm. Parents should insist that children always wear an approved face mask," he says.

Dr. C. Bernadino, recently named an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Emory Eye Center in Atlanta, treated half a dozen severe eye injuries caused by paintball when he worked at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital in Boston. At his new practice, one of his partners recently treated a woman who was blinded in one eye when her son mistakenly shot her with a paintball.

"We see damage directly to the eyeball and also to the eye socket, which can be fractured," he says.

Bernadino himself played paintball in college and says eye protection is a must.

"When you get hit, it hurts. You can get bruises on bare skin, so imagine what it does to your eyes," he says.

More information

A review of paintball safety can be found at The Nemours Foundation. For recommendations on eye protection for a variety of sports, visit Vanderbilt University.

SOURCES: David Listman, M.D., pediatric emergency medicine, St. Barnabas Hospital, Bronx, N.Y.; Robert C. Bernadino, M.D., assistant professor, ophthalmology, Emory Eye Center, Atlanta; January 2004 Pediatrics
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