Airbags Provide a Crash Course in Eye Trauma
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
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.
This is very rare, and the experts see no need for alarm. "The new LASIK
flaps with laser refractive surgery are very strong, and I would say that the
integrity is almost the same as in an eye that hasn't had surgery," Lit
Thomas C. Wolf, MD, director of refractive surgery at the Dean A. McGee Eye
Institute at Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City and co-author of
a study on airbag-related eye damage, tells WebMD that paint balls used for
recreational shooting cause more eye injuries than airbags. But he cautions
that drivers and passengers should heed the advice of experts: