Diagnosis, Treatment of Ocular Injuries: Ocular Burn, Corneal Abrasion, Retrobulbar Hemorrhage, Open Globe Injury, Hyphema, Detached Retina (Trauma CME) | EB Medicine

Ocular Injuries: New Strategies In Emergency Department Management (Trauma CME)

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Table of Contents
Table of Contents
  1. Abstract
  2. Case Presentations
  3. Introduction
  4. Critical Appraisal of the Literature
  5. Etiology And Pathophysiology
  6. Differential Diagnosis
  7. Prehospital Care
  8. Emergency Department Evaluation
    1. History
    2. Physical Examination
    3. The Multiply Injured Patient
    4. Proptosis And Retrobulbar Hemorrhage
  9. Diagnostic Studies
  10. Treatment
    1. Corneal Abrasion
      1. Patching
      2. Topical Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
      3. Topical Antibiotics
      4. Topical Cycloplegics
      5. Summary
  11. Special Populations
    1. Pediatric Patients
    2. Patients With Sickle Cell Disease And Coagulopathies
  12. Controversies And Cutting Edge
    1. Topical Anesthetics For Corneal Abrasion
    2. Hospital Admission For Traumatic Hyphema
    3. Oxygen Therapy For Ocular Burns
  13. Disposition
    1. Corneal Abrasion
    2. Ocular Burn
    3. Traumatic Hyphema
    4. Other Injuries
  14. Summary
  15. Risk Management Pitfalls For Ocular Injuries
  16. Time- And Cost-Effective Strategies
  17. Case Conclusions
  18. Clinical Pathway For Management Of Ocular Trauma
  19. Clinical Pathway For Management Of Retrobulbar Hemorrhage
  20. Tables and Figures
    1. Table 1. Ocular Trauma Diagnoses
    2. Table 2. Pertinent Historical Questions For Ocular Trauma Patients
    3. Table 3. Conditions Diagnosable By Ultrasound And Their Characteristic Findings
    4. Table 4. Trials Examining The Use Of Topical NSAIDs To Treat Corneal Abrasion Pain
    5. Table 5. The Roper-Hall Classification System
    6. Figure 1. Eye Anatomy
    7. Figure 2. A Schematic Of Grossly Visible Common Ocular Injuries
    8. Figure 3. Irregularly Shaped Pupil Secondary To Glove Ruptur
    9. Figure 4. Traumatic Hyphema
    10. Figure 5. Corneal Abrasion With Multiple Linear Abrasions
    11. Figure 6. Proptotic Eye Seconary To Retrobulbar Hemorrhage
    12. Figure 7. Computed Tomography Image Showing Glass Intraocular Foreign Body
    13. Figure 8. Normal Ocular Ultrasound
    14. Figure 9. Ocular Ultrasound Of Retrobulbar Hemorrhage
  21. References


Ocular injuries are common in the emergency department, and they are the most frequent cause of noncongenital monocular blindness in children and adults. This review provides evidence-based recommendations for the diagnosis, treatment, and disposition of patients with all types of ocular trauma, including pain management, the use of antibiotics, cycloplegics, steroids, antifibrinolytics, and patching. Bedside ocular ultrasound has profoundly expanded diagnostic capability, particularly for the multiply injured patient, and routine management and disposition of patients with corneal abrasions has evolved significantly as well. Diagnosis and management of patients with retrobulbar hemorrhage is discussed in detail, with resources for performing vision-saving lateral canthotomy. Systematic evaluation and management of ocular trauma patients will ensure these patients have the best chance for a favorable final visual outcome.

Case Presentations

Your shift begins and you pick up your first chart: “eye irritation.” You talk to the patient and discover that she felt the sudden onset of left eye pain and irritation while she was applying her eye makeup this morning; she is worried she may have scratched her eye with her fingernail. You give the patient's eye a drop of topical anesthetic and perform a fluorescein examination, which reveals a single corneal abrasion. You plan to discharge the patient home with a prescription for a topical antibiotic and a topical cycloplegic. The patient asks if she can have the bottle of topical anesthetic because it was so helpful in relieving her pain. You wonder whether this is safe...

While you are considering this, you are called into the resuscitation area for a patient involved in a severe motor vehicle crash. The patient was apneic and was intubated by EMS. The right side of his face is extremely swollen and you are unable to examine his right eye, and he is unable to provide any information about the vision in his right eye. His eye seems mildly proptotic, and you wonder if you need to be concerned for a retrobulbar hemorrhage. Is there anything that can be done at the bedside to evaluate for this possibility? Should treatment for retrobulbar hemorrhage be initiated presumptively in this patient?

After your trauma patient is stabilized, you see your next patient: another eye complaint! This patient was at work when an unknown chemical splashed into his left eye. He immediately began irrigation, but he continues to complain of pain and decreased vision in the eye. You wonder if you should examine the eye first, or initiate irrigation of the eye immediately. If the patient feels better, does ophthalmology need to be consulted in the ED? What medications should you send home with this patient?


Ocular injuries can be anxiety-provoking for both the patient and the emergency clinician. Eye injuries are the leading cause of monocular blindness in the United States.1-3 They are the most common cause of noncongenital unilateral blindness in the pediatric population.4

Fortunately, most eye injuries are minor and the overwhelming majority are not associated with significant morbidity.5 Even most ocular burns tend to be mild and inconsequential in the long term.6 In patients with mild injury, pain management and prevention of secondary infection are the mainstays of treatment.

The polytrauma patient poses a particular clinical challenge because a proper eye examination may be difficult or impossible. This issue of Emergency Medicine Practice provides a systematic review of best-practice recommendations based on the available evidence.

Critical Appraisal Of The Literature

A literature search was performed using PubMed and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Search terms included: ocular trauma, corneal abrasion, ocular burn, traumatic iritis, open globe, traumatic hyphema, retrobulbar hemorrhage, retrobulbar hematoma, lens subluxation, lens dislocation, subconjunctival hemorrhage, vitreous hemorrhage, retinal detachment, treatment, diagnosis, trauma, and medicolegal. References listed in relevant articles were also used, if not previously identified. The search was limited to articles in English. The search yielded 2 relevant Cochrane reviews and 87 relevant PubMed articles

The National Guideline Clearinghouse was also queried (www.guideline.gov), with 1 relevant article noted. Guidelines from the American Academy of Ophthalmology and from the American College of Emergency Physicians were queried; however, there were no relevant guidelines.

Generally speaking, the evidence related to ocular trauma is of intermediate quality. Trials were often underpowered and had significant selection bias, making the findings difficult to apply to the general population. Studies were also affected by poor patient follow-up. Several reasons account for these issues. Ocular trauma is relatively rare, making recruitment into a study and the ability to have an adequately powered study difficult. Poor follow-up was often an issue because the patient’s symptoms may have resolved, decreasing the likelihood of following up and completing the study; this was especially true in some studies of corneal abrasion treatment.

In other ocular disease states, no studies were identified (eg, in the treatment of iritis). Case reports have been published, but no quality research has otherwise been performed. It appears that the treatment of this entity is based on dogma and tradition.

Risk Management Pitfalls For Ocular Injuries

  1. “I didn’t have time to do proper visual acuity testing.”
    Visual acuity is, essentially, a “vital sign” of the eye. Formal visual acuity testing with a Snellen chart or other device typically takes less than 2 minutes and is an essential component of the patient’s physical examination. If the patient is unable to complete this, then a rough estimate of the patient’s visual acuity should be obtained. Can the patient count fingers, see a hand waving, or read? There may be later medicolegal implications regarding visual acuity, particularly in cases of workers' compensation, so this must be documented.7,18,26
  2. “I thought I should examine the patient’s eye prior to irrigation.”
    The patient’s best chance of a favorable visual outcome following an ocular burn is immediate and copious irrigation. Even if other life-saving measures must be instituted simultaneously, irrigation should begin immediately. Whatever fluid is most readily available (normal saline, lactated Ringer’s, tap water) should be used.6,11,12 Record the length of time of irrigation, the solution being used, the pH of the eye, and the times when the pH of the eye was tested.63 Additionally, it is the responsibility of the emergency clinician to ensure that triage staff is aware of the time sensitivity of irrigation in these patients so that they are treated expeditiously.86
  3. “I didn’t realize I had to record so much specific information about the trauma.”
    It is extremely important from a medicolegal standpoint to record specific information regarding the trauma. If the patient presented with visual complaints without a clear history of trauma, it should be ascertained what they were doing at the time of onset of symptoms, as heavy lifting may be the “trauma” that precipitated the ocular injury (eg, retinal detachment). This is also very important for workers' compensation cases.20 Ocular pain while hammering or performing some other metal-on-metal activity is also important to elicit, as it places the patient at risk for an intraocular foreign body.1
  4. “The patient had severe trauma with other life-threatening injuries, so I didn’t really examine his eyes.”
    The fact that a patient may have life-threatening injuries or a swollen face that precludes direct examination of the globe does not absolve the emergency clinician of the responsibility to evaluate for and treat vision-threatening injuries. CT of the orbit can be very helpful, particularly if the patient is already to receive a CT of the head. If the patient is not stable enough to leave the ED, bedside ultrasonography is a good way to evaluate for vision-threatening injuries.32,33,36
  5. “I already examined the eye once, why do I need to examine it again?”
    If the patient has any change in symptoms or if any procedure is performed on the eye (eg, corneal foreign body removal), the eye should be re-examined and these results should be recorded. Changes in the patient’s symptoms may indicate an evolving pathology that requires attention, and the eye should be re-examined to evaluate for this possibility.87
  6. “I thought that topical steroids were indicated!”
    Although topical steroids may be used to treat a myriad of ocular conditions, they can be potentially harmful to the eye and their effects need to be monitored closely.
  7. “The patient’s eye injury occurred at work and I forgot to ask whether he was wearing any eye protection.”
    Whether the patient was wearing eye protection is particularly important, especially if the trauma occurred at work.7 The patient may ultimately require workers' compensation.
  8. “My patient states that he cannot follow up with his ophthalmologist until next week. I thought that was soon enough.”
    This depends on the ocular injury sustained. However, generally, the patient will need much closer follow-up, often within 24 hours. The inability to follow up must be taken into consideration when formulating a treatment plan for a patient.
  9. “I thought all corneal abrasions were the same.”
    It must be discerned whether the patient with corneal abrasion wears contact lenses. If contact lenses are worn, then the patient will need a topical antibiotic that has antipseudomonal properties, and the patient must be told not to wear contact lenses until the corneal abrasion has resolved.15
  10. “The Seidel test was negative, so I didn’t think the patient had a globe rupture.”
    The Seidel test can be negative if the area of globe rupture or laceration is small and has sealed off. A high index of suspicion must be maintained, primarily based on the mechanism of injury.3,18,27 Ultrasound and CT can aid in the diagnosis of a globe rupture.32,33,36

Tables and Figures

Table 1. Ocular Trauma Diagnoses


Evidence-based medicine requires a critical appraisal of the literature based upon study methodology and number of subjects. Not all references are equally robust. The findings of a large, prospective, randomized, and blinded trial should carry more weight than a case report.

To help the reader judge the strength of each reference, pertinent information about the study will be included in bold type following the reference, where available. In addition, the most informative references cited in this paper, as determined by the authors, will be noted by an asterisk (*) next to the number of the reference.

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  3. Colby K. Management of open globe injuries. Int Ophthalmol Clin. 1999;39(1):59-69. (Comparative study)
  4. Rocha KM, Martins EN, Melo LA Jr, et al. Outpatient management of traumatic hyphema in children: prospective evaluation. J AAPOS. 2004;8(4):357-361. (Prospective case series; 35 patients)
  5. Negrel AD, Thylefors B. The global impact of eye injuries. Ophthalmic Epidemiol. 1998;5(3):143-169. (Review)
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  9. May DR, Kuhn FP, Morris RE, et al. The epidemiology of serious eye injuries from the United States Eye Injury Registry. Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 2000;238(2):153-157. (Comparative study; 8952 patients)
  10. Vassallo S, Hartstein M, Howard D, et al. Traumatic retrobulbar hemorrhage: emergent decompression by lateral canthotomy and cantholysis. J Emerg Med. 2002;22(3):251-256. (Case report)
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  12. Connor AJ, Severn P. Use of a control test to aid pH assessment of chemical eye injuries. Emerg Med J. 2009;26(11):811- 812. (Case report)
  13. Ikeda N, Hayasaka S, Hayasaka Y, et al. Alkali burns of the eye: effect of immediate copious irrigation with tap water on their severity. Ophthalmologica. 2006;220(4):225-228. (Comparative study)
  14. Herr RD, White GL, Jr., Bernhisel K, et al. Clinical comparison of ocular irrigation fluids following chemical injury. Am J Emerg Med. 1991;9(3):228-231. (Randomized controlled trial; 11 patients, 12 eyes)
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  27. Sawyer MN. Ultrasound imaging of penetrating ocular trauma. J Emerg Med. 2009;36(2):181-182. (Case report)
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  29. Perry M. Acute proptosis in trauma: retrobulbar hemorrhage or orbital compartment syndrome--does it really matter? J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 2008;66(9):1913-1920. (Prospective observational study; 10 patients)
  30. Hislop WS, Dutton GN, Douglas PS. Treatment of retrobulbar haemorrhage in accident and emergency departments. Br J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 1996;34(4):289-292. (Survey; 55 doctors)
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  32. Sung EK, Nadgir RN, Fujita A, et al. Injuries of the globe: what can the radiologist offer? Radiographics. 2014;34(3):764- 776. (Review)
  33. Lakits A, Prokesch R, Scholda C, et al. Orbital helical computed tomography in the diagnosis and management of eye trauma. Ophthalmology. 1999;106(12):2330-2335. (Prospective observational; 36 patients)
  34. Blaivas M, Theodoro D, Sierzenski PR. A study of bedside ocular ultrasonography in the emergency department. Acad Emerg Med. 2002;9(8):791-799. (Prospective observational study; 61 patients)
  35. Blaivas M. Bedside emergency department ultrasonography in the evaluation of ocular pathology. Acad Emerg Med. 2000;7(8):947-950. (Case reports)
  36. * Roque PJ, Hatch N, Barr L, et al. Bedside ocular ultrasound. Crit Care Clin. 2014;30(2):227-241. (Overview)
  37. Frasure SE, Saul T, Lewiss RE. Bedside ultrasound diagnosis of vitreous hemorrhage and traumatic lens dislocation. Am J Emerg Med. 2013;31(6):1002.e1001-e1002. (Case report)
  38. Theoret J, Sanz GE, Matero D, et al. The “guitar pick” sign: a novel sign of retrobulbar hemorrhage. CJEM. 2011;13(3):162- 164. (Case report)
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  40. Le Sage N, Verreault R, Rochette L. Efficacy of eye patching for traumatic corneal abrasions: a controlled clinical trial. Ann Emerg Med. 2001;38(2):129-134. (Controlled clinical trial; 163 patients)
  41. Campanile TM, St Clair DA, Benaim M. The evaluation of eye patching in the treatment of traumatic corneal epithelial defects. J Emerg Med. 1997;15(6):769-774. (Randomized controlled trial; 64 patients)
  42. Kaiser PK. A comparison of pressure patching versus no patching for corneal abrasions due to trauma or foreign body removal. Corneal Abrasion Patching Study Group. Ophthalmology. 1995;102(12):1936-1942. (Randomized controlled trial; 223 patients)
  43. Turner A, Rabiu M. Patching for corneal abrasion. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006(2):CD004764. (Cochrane review of 11 trials; 1014 patients)
  44. * Calder LA, Balasubramanian S, Fergusson D. Topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for corneal abrasions: meta-analysis of randomized trials. Acad Emerg Med. 2005;12(5):467-473. (Meta-analysis; 11 trials)
  45. Goyal R, Shankar J, Fone DL, et al. Randomised controlled trial of ketorolac in the management of corneal abrasions. Acta Ophthalmol Scand. 2001;79(2):177-179. (Randomized controlled trial; 88 patients)
  46. Brown MD, Cordell WH, Gee AS. Do ophthalmic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce the pain associated with simple corneal abrasion without delaying healing? Ann Emerg Med. 1999;34(4 Pt 1):526-534. (Case report)
  47. Kaiser PK, Pineda R, 2nd. A study of topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drops and no pressure patching in the treatment of corneal abrasions. Corneal Abrasion Patching Study Group. Ophthalmology. 1997;104(8):1353-1359. (Randomized controlled trial; 100 patients)
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  49. Alberti MM, Bouat CG, Allaire CM, et al. Combined indomethacin/gentamicin eyedrops to reduce pain after traumatic corneal abrasion. Eur J Ophthalmol. 2001;11(3):233-239. (Randomized controlled trial; 123 patients)
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  51. Brahma AK, Shah S, Hillier VF, et al. Topical analgesia for superficial corneal injuries. J Accid Emerg Med. 1996;13(3):186- 188. (Randomized controlled trial; 401 patients)
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Publication Information

Anne M. Messman, MD

Publication Date

November 1, 2015

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