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Air Bags Prevent Serious Eye Injury

But Minor Injuries Are More Likely
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Nov. 15, 2002 -- Serious eye injuries are less likely to occur when the air bag of a car is deployed in a head-on accident, according to new research. However, the risk of minor eye damage such as corneal abrasions is higher.

While air bags have proved their effectiveness in preventing serious injuries and deaths in car accidents, there has been a growing concern that air bags may lead to minor injuries. During the seven-year study, researchers looked at more than 22,000 car crashes with and without air bags.

They found that as the number of cars equipped with air bags increased so too did the number of eye injuries -- even though air bags are supposed to prevent people from hitting the windshield or steering wheel (the two leading causes of serious eye injuries).

But when the researchers looked at the results more closely, they found that the increase in minor injuries accounted for the overall rise in eye injuries. In fact, more serious injuries, such as nerve damage, were less frequent after air bags were used.

The study is published in the November issue of The Archives of Ophthalmology.

Study leader Stefan M. Duma, PhD, and colleagues found that 3% of the people whose air bags had gone off sustained some eye damage. In contrast, only 2% of people without air bags had eye injuries. Other factors such as gender, wearing glasses, contacts, or seatbelts were not associated with eye injury. Duma is from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.

What did become apparent from the study was the severity of the eye injuries caused by the lack of an air bag. Four levels of injuries were determined; the most severe injury resulting in blindness. In instances where there was no airbag, 10.5% of the passengers had severe eye damage. Only 7% sustained such damage when an airbag was deployed.

Those with air bags, however, were at higher risk for minor cornea damage. The concern is that as the population gravitates toward more vision-correction surgery the cornea will weaken, making the eyes more vulnerable to injury. Future studies are forthcoming.

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