Is lifting weights really bad for your eyesight?

Thursday 26 June 2014 by Gareth

In the UK around 600,000 people have glaucoma; approximately half of those people are currently unaware they have the eye disease. For this group of glaucoma sufferers studies have found that lifting weights at the gym or playing wind instruments can increase the risk of blindness. Hobbies like these enhance eye pressure which can invite unwanted damage to the eye or speed up the process of glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a condition which affects the drainage of fluid in the eye called ‘aqueous’. A normal healthy eye circulates aqueous fluid between the eye and the blood stream, in someone with glaucoma the eye is unable to drain the fluid which causes a pressure build-up on the optic nerve, resulting in vision loss and blindness due to fibre damage.

Glaucoma has a genetic link, so it is more likely for those who have a history of glaucoma in their family to inherit the condition. It is also more common for those of black-African or black-Caribbean origin to develop open-angle glaucoma; however, scientists still don’t know for sure why this group is more at risk. If you have diabetes or hypertension you also have a higher chance of getting the eye disease.

Glaucoma is not easily identifiable without a proper screening as it has no noticeable symptoms early on. More visible symptoms such as narrowing vision only occur when the optic nerve is more severely damaged. It can be treated with eye drops, surgery and laser treatment but as with most diseases, sufferers see more positive results from treatment if the condition is detected early on.

The Manhattan Eye and Throat Hospital conducted research over a 20 year period on the effects of weight lifting on eyes; they found that bench pressing increases compression of the optic nerve as a result of puffing and blowing, especially if you hold your breath.

A Professional of Clinical Ophthalmology, Robert Ritch once treated someone who had become blind due to repetitively doing headstands in a yoga class. He suggested when talking to the Daily Mail that weightlifters should breathe out when lifting to reduce pressure on the eye.

If you play a wind instrument you could also be putting an additional burden on your eyes from the blowing and breathing control required to play correctly reported a 2008 study in the journal of Optometry and Vision Science. This is because staining, whilst holding your breath causes blood vessels to constrict in the neck, head and chest which in-turn increases tension in the eye.

Professor Reinstein, who has a special interest in this area, said: “These surges in pressure are not a problem if you have healthy eyes. But for people predisposed to glaucoma - or suffering from it - they are harming their vision without realising it by increasing pressure on the optic nerve. They can lose 70 per cent of peripheral vision in one eye before they know what's happening as the other eye will compensate.”

High street eye tests aren’t always sufficient in the detection of glaucoma, if you are over 40 and your family has a history of glaucoma, you participant in weightlifting or play a wind instrument Professor Reinstein advices that an in-depth eye examination with an optometrist to ensure you don’t have the disease. It’s recommended that you attend these examinations on a 2 yearly basis.

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