Sports safety: how to avoid sports-related injuries

Experts provide safety tips for protecting one’s eyes, mouth and body from sports-related injuries this season.
Written by: Tehreem Khan
Media contact: Anna Jones

Stream UAB FBIn 2021, 3.2 million people were treated in emergency departments for injuries involving sports and recreational equipment. While playing sports is a lot of fun, getting a sports-related injury is not. 

Experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham provide safety tips for protecting one’s eyes, mouth and body from sports-related injuries this season.  

Eye safety

Nearly 30,000 sports-related eye injuries are treated in emergency rooms each year in the United States. While the eyes are a sensitive part of the body and are at risk for injuries while playing sports, Katherine Weise, O.D., professor in the UAB School of Optometry, says there are steps one can take to help with eye protection. 

  • Get an eye exam. A baseline comprehensive eye exam can help doctors in diagnosing vision problems and recommending treatment options to maximize vision and depth perception so athletes can see more clearly, allowing them to play better and safer. Weise says eye exams could help minimize risk of concussion by finding and treating vision problems that may lead to bumps, blows, or jolts to the head.
  • Wear protective sports goggles and face guards. Weise recommends looking for goggles and face guards with sturdy frames and lenses that are made of polycarbonate. Polycarbonate can withstand a high level of force or impact without breaking and can protect the athlete from fingers and balls flying toward the eyes.
  • Let the natural tears wash out the speck. When an athlete has a speck in their eye, Weise says, it is best to try to let the natural tears wash the speck out. If not, commercially available eye wash should be used.

Inside Lewis VOR lab 3The VORC, located within UAB Eye Care, conducts research to identify markers of mild traumatic brain injury, also known as concussion, in athletes.
Photography: Steve Wood
Eye injuries can sometimes be more serious than they appear. If an athlete is experiencing any of the following symptoms, they should go to the doctor immediately.

  • Flashes of light, lots of floaters or reduced side vision
  • Double vision
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye pain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Red eye

In sports-related head injuries, the eyes often play a role. The Vestibular and Oculomotor Research Clinic, or VORC, is located within UAB Eye Care and conducts research to identify markers of mild traumatic brain injury, also known as concussion, in athletes. Concussion-related vision and vestibular symptoms typically include headache, dizziness and balance problems, eye strain, and intermittently double or blurry vision. The VORC houses state-of-the-art equipment to objectively and comprehensively test vestibular, oculomotor and balance function after incurring a concussion.

Dental safety

Dentists estimate that between 13 percent and 39 percent of dental injuries occur while playing sports. While there is a risk for injuries that can lead to teeth damage, Stephen Mitchell, DMD, professor at the UAB School of Dentistry, says these injuries can often be prevented by following a few simple tips.  

  • Wear a mouthguard. Mouth guards are one of the most important pieces of safety equipment available to protect teeth. Mouth guards can help athletes avoid chipped or broken teeth, nerve damage, and tooth loss. The American Dental Association recommends wearing a properly fitted mouthguard to reduce the incidence and severity of oral injury in sporting or recreational activities, particularly activities with significant risk of dental trauma or facial injury. This may sometimes require custom mouthguards made by the dentist.
  • Wear a facemask, if appropriate. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends athletes such as baseball and softball players wear a facemask, not just a mouthguard. Mitchell says this is especially recommended for players younger than 13 whose hand and eye coordination may not be developed enough to help them react to a ball coming at their face.
  • Talk with a dentist. A dental health care provider can help an athlete determine the best safety precautions for their sport. 

Mouthguard insideMouth guards can help athletes avoid chipped or broken teeth, nerve damage, and tooth loss.Mitchell says it is important to be prepared for injuries during the sports season. To prepare for a dislodged tooth, for example, he recommends purchasing an American Dental Association-approved tooth preservation kit, available through online vendors.

“If a permanent tooth gets knocked out, it can immediately be placed into the fluid in this case, and this will improve the chances of the tooth’s being reimplanted successfully,” Mitchell said.

For fractures, Mitchell recommends seeing the dentist immediately.

“If a tooth is broken and the ‘pulp’ of the tooth is visible, meaning blood can be seen in the middle of the tooth, this needs immediate attention,” Mitchell said. “Go to your dentist immediately, or take your child to the emergency room.”

Make an appointment at UAB Dentistry today by clicking here.

Overall health safety

When it comes to general sports injuries, Ian McKeag, M.D., a sports medicine physician and an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine, says they vary by sport and age.

“Concussions, overuse injuries, and heat-related injuries and illnesses are all major concerns that we have for our athletes,” McKeag said. “Unfortunately, most of the causes behind these injuries boil down to the fundamental nature of the sport, of competition and of exercise as a whole.”

McKeag says concussions are a frequent occurrence that have been a hot topic of discussion in recent years, especially in physical contact sports. 

Overuse injuries can be caused by the repetitive forces put on the body during exercise. In children, overuse can cause inflammation of the growth plate of the bone, similar to a stress fracture in adults. Children who play the same sport all year can predispose themselves to many injuries, especially overuse injuries. 

Heat-related injuries and illnesses can be found in hot and humid states. McKeag says many athletes are not acclimated to exercising in the heat, especially with added sports gear. Heat injuries are even more of a concern for younger children as their bodies may not be able to regulate heat as well as older athletes. 

Fortunately, there are some steps people can take to help prevent these injuries from happening.

  • Be knowledgeable about sports-related injuries. McKeag says that, when parents educate themselves on the nature of sports-related injuries surrounding the sports their child is playing, they can take proactive steps to prevent them.
  • Do it right. An individual’s biomechanics often play a pivotal role in their risk for injuries. McKeag says that, by learning and practicing the correct technique and ensuring proper biomechanics, overuse injuries can be prevented.
  • Get the right footwear. McKeag has found that many young athletes will sacrifice function for style. Getting a shoe that fits one’s feet in both size and shape is key.

After experiencing a sports-related injury, McKeag recommends visiting a doctor if an athlete is experiencing any of the symptoms below.

  • Limping
  • Joints feel “unstable,” with or without a stereotypical injury event
  • Soreness or achiness over a bone or joint that is getting worse rather than better with time
  • Recurrent joint swelling

“Even if you are not experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to know that you do not need to be incapacitated to see a doctor,” McKeag said. “Our team at UAB Sports and Exercise Medicine is here whenever you need. To be honest, we would rather see you before the injury than after. We are trained to help identify biomechanical issues and muscle imbalances in athletes of all ages, and we work with each of our patients to help develop the best treatment plan for them.”

Make an appointment with a sports medicine provider by visiting