Can weightlifting damage your eye health?

Glaucoma is a condition that affects around 600,000 people in the UK, with around half of these people unaware that they have the disease. Studies have shown that activities that require exertion, like playing wind instruments or lifting weights at the gym, can actually increase the risk of blindness as a result as they increase pressure on the eye which speeds up the process of glaucoma.

What is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is an eye condition that impacts the drainage of fluid in the eye, known as aqueous. Healthy eyes circulate this fluid between the eye and the bloodstream, but someone suffering from glaucoma is at risk of pressure building upon the optic nerve as this fluid doesn’t drain away properly. The result, if undetected, can lead to a loss of vision and even blindness as the fibers of the nerve become irreparably damaged. There are genetic links with this disease, meaning it’s more likely that people who have a history of glaucoma in their family will inherit the condition themselves. People of black-African or black-Caribbean heritage are also more likely to develop open-angle glaucoma, but scientists are unsure why they are more at risk than others. Sufferers of diabetes and hypertension are similarly more likely to develop the disease.

This isn’t a condition that is easily identifiable without proper screening as there aren’t any symptoms, which is why so many people aren’t aware they have it and so they may think an easy fix is to wear glasses, contact lenses or acuvue bifocal contact lenses. As the condition progresses and develops, symptoms may appear such as a narrowing vision which is caused when the optic nerve becomes severely damaged. Glaucoma can be treated with eye drops and surgery, but it’s more easily treatable the earlier it is detected, as with most diseases.

How Does Weightlifting Affect It?

A 20-year study carried out by the Manhattan Eye and Throat Hospital discovered that people who lift weights are more at risk of damaging the optic nerve. Bench pressing increases the compression of the nerve because of the puffing and blowing the person does to lift the weight, and this impact is made even more severe by people who hold their breath while lifting weights. In rare cases, patients can even become blind by repeatedly carrying out these exercises.

Researchers found that a higher intraocular pressure occurs during the Valsalva maneuver, where the air is forced against a closed windpipe resulting in a pressure increase in the chest. This action doesn’t just occur during weightlifting and playing instruments but also when coughing and even vomiting. In another study carried out by Dr. Geraldo Magela Viera at the Institute of Specialised Ophthalmology and UNIPLAC School of Medicine in Brazil, intraocular pressure was measured in 30 men during weightlifting. These men had no signs of glaucoma and their intraocular pressure was within a normal range of under 21mm of mercury.

The participants were asked to perform four repetitions of bench press exercises in two different ways, the first of which they were told to hold their breath during the last repetition and in the second variation, they were told to breathe normally. Their eye pressure was measured each time and researchers found the pressure in the eyes increased in 90 percent of participants when they held their breath, compared to just 18 percent of participants when they were breathing normally while lifting the weights.

How to Reduce the risk?

Any fluctuation in pressure can lead to problems with the eyes but in order to relieve the force on the nerve, doctors recommend that you breathe out when lifting to reduce the pressure. The same can be said of people who play wind instruments as it puts an extra burden on the eyes due to the breathing control that’s required in order to play the instrument correctly. This pressure causes the blood vessels in the neck, head and chest to constrict which builds up the tension in the eyes. Doctors have stated that the optic nerve tolerates steady pressure much better than fluctuating pressure, so activities that cause this should be reduced wherever possible to preserve the health of the eyes.

For people with healthy eyes, this pressure surge isn’t as much of an issue. But for those predisposed to glaucoma or who already have it and are perhaps unaware, it can pose a serious risk to their vision over the long term. It’s possible that patients in this situation could lose as much as 70 percent of their peripheral vision in one eye before they know there’s a problem, as the other eye compensates, making it more difficult to realize what’s going on.

The apparent sudden change in vision and lack of warning with glaucoma makes it crucial that weightlifters train with caution and ensure they’re breathing properly to avoid putting unnecessary stress on the eyes and optic nerve. What’s more, isokinetic and aerobic exercises can help to reduce intraocular pressure in the eye by a considerable amount, increasing the flow of blood pressure to the eye. Exercises that increase the heart rate by around 25 percent will help to reduce pressure in the eyes and lower the risk of pressure-related damage to their vision, even in as little as just a few months if they regularly take part in moderate exercise. In-depth eye examinations every two years for people over 40 or for people with a history of glaucoma in their family are the best way of ensuring their eyes are healthy and free from the disease.