Certain gym activities may carry a risk of ‘catastrophic’ eye

Heavy resistance training offers a vast number of health benefits, but lifting weights that are too heavy isn’t without risks. Among the most widely discussed are damaged joints and muscle tissues. Some studies, however, have also identified risks for the eyes. By causing sudden increases in venous pressure, exercises like heavy weightlifting could lead to retinal detachment.

Retinal detachment is broadly defined as a serious ophthalmologic disorder which can lead to irreversible loss of vision.

Bill McKenna, Founder of Cognomovement, explained that the medical emergency involves the retina, a thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye.

This part of the eye helps to process visual information by converting light that enters the eye into an electrical signal.

In retinal detachment, the retina “becomes separated from the layer of blood vessels that provide it with oxygen and nutrients”, explained McKenna.

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“This separation can cause vision loss or blindness if not treated promptly.”

The link between retinal detachment and heavy weightlifting has been highlighted in studies dating back to 2000.

Research published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology was among the first to draw a link between the condition and the sport in men.

These findings were recently echoed in a study of 264 people published in the Journal of the Egyptian Public Health Association.

The study suggested that occupational heavy lifting also carried a risk of retinal detachment and that the duration of lifting has a significant effect on the damage.


Earlier research published in Neurology Research suggested that such a form of weightlifting could induce substantial pressure in the arteries.

One report in the journal states: “Catastrophic brain injuries such as stroke, cerebral haemorrhage, […] retinal haemorrhage and retinal detachment have been associated with weight-lifting.”

Though several studies have confirmed this association, other lifestyle factors are more likely to cause damage to the retina.

Mr McKenna states that other factors linked to retinal detachment include nearsightedness, trauma to the eye and certain medical conditions.

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Obesity is another common cause of serious sight-threatening retinal diseases as it weakens the tiny blood vessels inside the eye.

This prevents them from supplying oxygen and other key nutrients to the ocular region and contributes to retinal detachment.

“To prevent retinal detachment, it is important to have regular eye exams, especially if you have risk factors such as high myopia or a family history of retinal detachment,” explained Mr McKenna.

“It is also important to protect your eyes from trauma, such as by wearing protective eyewear during activities that may pose a risk of eye injury.

“If you are experiencing any vision changes or symptoms such as floater or flashes of light, it is important to see an eye doctor promptly, as these may be signs of retinal detachment.”

The NHS advises any who experiences the following symptoms to call 111:

  • Dots or lines (floaters) that suddenly appear in your vision or suddenly increase in number
  • Flashes of light in your vision
  • Dark “curtain” or shadow moving across your vision
  • Vision that gets suddenly blurred.

While heavy weight-lifting may be an important risk factor for retinal detachment, the mechanisms need further exploration in general populations.

One thing these studies make clear, however, is that it’s important to take proper safety precautions when engaging in heavyweight lifting.

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