Not Harmless Toys: Paintball Guns Are More Dangerous Than Previously Thought

Out of the twenty patients with eye injuries the study examined, twelve needed surgical intervention.

A new study discovered that paintball guns cause more severe eye injuries than previously thought.

Researchers from the University of Chicago Medicine examined data on attacks with paintball guns over the course of two years and discovered that more patients than anticipated experienced vision-threatening emergencies after being hit in the eye, with some suffering an eyeball rupture or even going permanently blind.

“Many of these patients had devastating outcomes, such as irreversible vision loss,” said lead author Shivam Amin, MD, a second-year resident in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Some people may view paintball guns as harmless toys, but they can cause serious harm when used in an unsupervised setting, especially when people use them as an assault weapon and aim for the head.”

The study, which was recently published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology, is the first to examine patients for eye injuries brought on by paintball guns being used as attack weapons with malicious intent. The researchers set out to learn more about how dangerous paintball guns are in unregulated environments.

20 patients with eye injuries from paintball gun attacks were studied by the researchers over a two-year period, from January 2020 to December 2021. At the time, Chicago had seen a spike in assaults using paintball guns.

“In fact, we had eight injuries on one weekend,” said senior author Hassan Shah, MD, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and UChicago Medicine oculoplastic surgeon. “There was an unusually high number of very severe injuries where the eye actually burst open.”

Surgery was necessary for twelve individuals. Six patients had a ruptured globe, which occurs when the eyeball rips apart and requires emergency surgery to stitch it back together.

Three of those patients eventually needed an evisceration, in which doctors replace the insides of the eye with silicone. Researchers reported the highest rate of ruptured globes (30%) among all studies to date that included at least five or more patients.

This is significantly higher than the 7% rate the team found when combining several different groups of studies that did not look specifically at paintball gun assaults.

“Some of these patients had multiple surgeries, made multiple visits to see us in our clinic, and experienced a significant physical, mental and emotional toll associated with the disruption in their quality and loss of their vision,” said Amin.

Five patients were left blind in one eye.

Unlike firearms, which use gun powder to propel a bullet out of a gun’s barrel, paintball guns use compressed gas to fire a spherical gelatin capsule filled with paint. The guns can be mechanically or electrically powered; depending on the gun used, paintballs can travel up to 300 feet per second and have a maximum range of approximately 120 feet.

Because paintballs are small, relatively heavy – at roughly 3.5 grams – and do not cause an exit wound, their force upon impact is entirely released over a small surface area.

Reference: “Ocular Injuries From Drive-by Paintball Shootings” by Shivam V. Amin, Valerie E. Otti, Asim V. Farooq and Hassan A. Shah, 17 May 2022, American Journal of Ophthalmology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.ajo.2022.05.004

BlindEyesUniversity of Chicago