WASHINGTON – March is National Save Your Vision Month, and the Defense Department wants service members to take care of their eyes by wearing eye protection when performing dangerous work, reducing eye strain and routinely undergoing eye examinations.
Dr. Robert Mazzoli, an ophthalmologist at the Vision Center of Excellence at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., noted the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of more than a decade produced a historic high in the percentage of eye injuries.
“When we were first going into Iraq, eye injuries accounted for 25 percent of all combat casualties,” he said. “That’s because people weren’t wearing their eye protection.”
That was when warfare was different and comprised mostly of artillery, Mazzoli said. After the introduction of improvised explosive devices, he said, eye injuries dropped to about 10 to 15 percent, which still is higher than it’s been in the U.S. history of war.
After witnessing fellow troops with compromised or lost vision, service members eventually began to understand the importance of wearing their protective eyewear, he noted.
The military is assertive about its service members wearing protective eye wear, Mazzoli said.
“If you can’t see, you can’t shoot [and] that becomes ineffective to the unit and the service member,” he said.
The military spent a lot of money on improving its eyewear, Mazzoli said.
“We have continually modified, improved and refined combat eye protection,” for such issues as visual clarity, he said, adding that the combat eye protection the military is fielding is bulletproof and can stop fragments. And since about 2005, commercial eyeglass companies have contracted with the military to make combat eyewear a bit more fashionable too, the doctor said.
“Prevention is always better than treatment,” Mazzoli said. “The No. 1 point is to wear eye protection even when you don’t think you need it, because that’s when you’re going to wish you had it.
“Eye injuries are completely avoidable,” Mazzoli said.
Even outside the combat arena, some 90 percent of eye injuries that happen at home could be prevented by wearing eye protection, he said.
Simple activities such as using a hammer, stretching a bungee cord or using weed eaters are common causes of eye injuries when protective eyewear isn’t used, Mazzoli said.
Recreational activities also can take a toll on eye injuries. Basketball is a common source of eye injuries, he said.
“Even LeBron James [of the NBA’s Miami Heat] wears a big plastic mask because he got elbowed and broke his nose,” he said.
When an eye injury occurs, it is critical to not apply pressure to the eye before seeing a doctor to avoid further damage, Mazzoli emphasized. Unlike tight tourniquets and compresses used to stop bleeding in other parts of the body, eye injuries should not be patched, he said.
Shielding the eye with glasses or sunglasses is acceptable as long as they do not touch the eye, Mazzoli said.
Another approach to keeping eyes healthy is to take breaks from electronics, such as computer monitors, smartphones, tablets, GPS units and other items with screens, because they strain the eye from “near work,” he said.
Activities such as crocheting, woodworking and reading books also qualify as “near” work, he pointed out
Televisions usually don’t apply because they are not close enough to cause eyestrain, Mazzoli said.
For “near” activities, Mazzoli suggests the “20/20/20 rule:” Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Routine eye examinations are important to maintaining healthy eyes, he said, adding that a family eye history of a disease such as glaucoma or diabetes dictates how often people should visit their eye doctor.
Wearing sunglasses with ultraviolet protection year-round also is important for healthy vision, he said.
The eye “is the window to the body, because [certain] diseases such as hypertension and diabetes can be seen in the back of the eye,” Mazzoli said.
“If we see diabetic changes going on in the eye, there’s a good chance those kinds of changes are happening in the kidney, brain, heart, liver and everywhere else in the body,” he pointed out.