You may have caught a medical case report we wrote about a few weeks back, in which a man was hospitalized after he sneezed while holding his nose and covering his mouth.
No, his eyes did not pop out of his sockets like a cartoon dog from the 70s spotting an attractive female cartoon dog. He did, however, rupture his neck and cause pockets of air extending from the top of his throat down into his chest, requiring a week in the hospital.
However, it got us interested in what exactly was the origin of the urban legend that if you sneeze with your eyes open, they pop out of their sockets before dangling around like the ball in a game of ball in a cup, and whether it's even possible to sneeze without instinctively shutting them.
First off, though it an autonomic reflex to close your eyes when you sneeze, it is actually possible to sneeze with your eyes open.
“The fact that it is possible to sneeze with the eyes open suggests that it is not hard-wired or mandatory,” David Huston, MD, associate dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine Houston campus explained in a press release.
“The body works to rid its airways by sneezing when it detects irritating particles in the nose,” Huston explained. “By automatically shutting the eyelids when a sneeze occurs, more irritants can potentially be prevented from entering and aggravating the eyes.”
Take a look at this talented YouTuber sneezing with her eyes open as proof.
Notice how her eyes didn't pop out? This is because the air spaces in the nose and throat aren't connected to anything behind the eye, meaning that there's no way a sneeze can create pressure that would force your eyes to shoot out and dangle around like a game of swingball. Even if it were possible for them to shoot out of there, “there is no way that keeping your eyelids closed can prevent [that],” professor of surgery and section chief of otolaryngology at the University of Chicago Medicine Dr. Robert Naclerio told NBC News. “It’s not like the muscles are strong enough.”
The origin of the legend appears to be a story published on April 30, 1882, in The New York Times, which claimed that a woman's eyeballs slid out after a bout of aggressive sneezing. It tells of how she was “met with a singular accident day before yesterday. While riding on a street car, she was seized with a sudden fit of sneezing and burst one of her eyeballs, from which she has since been suffering the most intense pain.”
Given that there are no modern cases of this happening, it's unlikely to be true. However, there is other good news, that people have vomited so hard that their lenses have come loose.
"Lens dislocation could be induced by simple vomiting," the doctors who treated a 51-year-old who did this concluded. "Which increased the vitrous cavity pres[s]ure to shock the zonular fiber and push the lens into the anterior chamber."