When Houston Rockets' star James Harden got poked in the eye during the second game of the NBA playoffs' Western Conference semifinals, the damage was obvious. Harden had a cut to his left eyelid and blood in the whites of his eyes. But he also suffered damage that wasn't obvious: he bruised the retina in both eyes. The retina is the layer of light-sensitive nerve cells lining the back of the eye, allowing us to see. News of his injury led people to ask, a bruised retina? Is that possible?
It is and there’s a term for it—commotio retinae. It describes the damage to the outer layer of the retina caused by the shock waves that travel thought the eye following a blunt trauma injury. In Harden's case, it was caused by the collision with Warriors' star Draymond Green.
"It's basically a concussion to the eye," explained Sunir J. Garg, MD, a retina specialist at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. "Anytime a person gets poked or hit in the eye, shockwaves from the injury can affect the retina and cause retinal bruising."
While most people recover completely within four weeks, some are left with reduced vision or blind spots. For bruising that doesn't get better on its own, ophthalmologists – physicians who specialize in medical and surgical eye care – may prescribe high-dose steroids to reduce retinal swelling and improve vision.
A bruised retina can occur with other, more serious vision-threatening conditions, such as retinal tears, glaucoma, and cataracts.
Harden got lucky, sometimes the force from blunt trauma can lead to a more serious, vision-threatening condition called a retinal detachment. If you experience the following symptoms after a blow to the eye, you may have suffered a retinal detachment. See an ophthalmologist immediately, you may need surgery.
Retinal detachment symptoms can include:
Any injury to the eye or surrounding area can lead to a lifetime of reduced vision. When in doubt, get medical attention immediately. Remember, about 90% of sports-related eye injuries can be prevented by simply wearing protective eyewear.