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Airbags Provide a Crash Course in Eye Trauma

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June 9, 2000 -- Airbags save lives, but they can be hard on the eyes -- literally. During a collision, older-model auto airbags can deploy with such force that they can cause serious injuries to the eyes or even, in rare cases, blindness, say eye trauma specialists interviewed by WebMD.

Airbags can also cause the loss of fingers or parts of limbs if the driver or passenger is resting his or her hands on the airbag cover -- usually in the center of the steering wheel or the right-hand side of the dashboard -- at the moment the bag deploys.

Despite these concerns, when airbags are used as recommended and in conjunction with seat belts, they are usually safe and still beat the alternative, says a specialist who has treated patients with eye injuries sustained in car crashes. "Who knows what would've happened? Without the airbag maybe their eye would be fine, but they'd be dead," Eugene S. Lit, MD, director of the eye trauma service at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, tells WebMD.

"There's no question that airbags save lives, but they certainly can be improved," says Edward E. Manche, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

He says the most common eye injuries seen with airbag deployment are superficial scratches, and burns from the propellant used to inflate the bag. But in a study of these cases published in 1997, Manche and colleagues saw patients with injuries to the retina (the delicate tissue lining the inside of the eye that serves as a screen for transmitting images to the brain), bleeding within the eye, cataracts (clouding of the lens due to trauma), rupture of the eyeball itself, and even one case of a young woman who went blind from her injuries.

And in at least one case, an airbag deployed with enough force to displace a LASIK flap in the cornea of a woman who had undergone the corrective laser eye surgery more than a year earlier. As Heath L. Lemley, MD, and colleagues report in The Journal of Refractive Surgery, the 37-year-old woman had a partial dislocation of the surgical flap caused by airbag deployment during a high-speed crash 17 months after her corneal surgery.

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