Eye Pain Causes & Treatments

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What is Eye Pain?

Eye pain, also known as ophthalmalgia, is a common eye condition.

However, eye pain is rarely a symptom of a serious disease or condition. Usually, the pain clears without medicine or treatment.

Depending on where you feel the discomfort, eye pain can fall into one of two categories. These include ocular pain, which occurs on the eye’s surface, and orbital pain from within the eye.

Pain that develops on the surface of the eye may involve a scratching, burning, or itching feeling. Surface pain typically results from irritation from a foreign body or object, infection, or trauma. Usually, this form of eye pain is treated with eye drops or rest.

Ophthalmalgia that occurs deeper with the eye may include an aching, stabbing, or throbbing sensation. This type of eye pain may need more in-depth treatment. 

Eye pain that comes with vision loss may be a symptom of an emergency medical problem. Speak with your ophthalmologist, eye doctor, or health care provider immediately if you lose vision while experiencing eye pain.

Other Symptoms that Might Accompany Eye Pain

Eye pain may occur with other symptoms including:

  • Blurred vision
  • Crusting on the eyelid margin 
  • Eye discharge
  • Dry eyes 
  • Heightened light sensitivity
  • Increased tear production 
  • Itchy eyes 
  • Loss of vision
  • Changes in vision 
  • Red eyes (bloodshot eyes) 
  • Seeing floating objects or spots 
  • Watery eyes
  • Tiredness
  • Fever 
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fatigue, fever, sore throat, headache, cough, aches, and pains
  • Migraine headache

What are the Potential Causes of Eye Pain?

There are various potential causes of painful eyes.

Here are some of the most common causes:

Conjunctivitis

The conjunctiva is the tissue that borders the front of the eye and the underside of the eyelid. The conjunctiva can become infected and inflamed. Usually, this occurs from an allergy or infection.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

While the pain of viral conjunctivitis is typically mild, the inflammation leads to itchiness, redness, and discharge in the eye. Conjunctivitis is also known as pink eye.

Contact Lens Irritation

People who wear contact lenses overnight or do not disinfect their lenses thoroughly are more likely to experience eye pain resulting from irritation or infection.

Corneal Abrasion

The cornea is the clear surface that covers the eye. It is prone to injuries. When you experience corneal abrasion, you will feel like there is a foreign object in your eye. 

However, treatments and methods that usually remove irritants from the eye, like flushing with water, will not ease any pain or discomfort if you have a corneal abrasion.

Eye Injury

Chemical and flash burns to the eye can lead to significant pain and eye injury. These burns are usually the result of exposure to irritants like bleach or intense light sources. These light sources may include the sun, tanning booths, or the materials used in arc welding.

Blepharitis 

Blepharitis develops when oil glands on the eyelid’s edge become inflamed or infected, leading to eye pain.

Stye

A blepharitis infection can form a nodule or raised bump on the eyelid. This is known as a stye or hordeolum. A stye can be extremely painful.

Illustration of Stye

The part of the eye near to the stye is typically very tender and sensitive to touch. However, a chalazion isn’t usually painful.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma occurs when there is damage to the optic nerve. Some types of glaucoma are associated with high eye pressure. Typically, glaucoma has no symptoms early on. However, if there is a drastic increase in eye pressure, you may notice headache, loss of vision, and nausea.

A sudden boost in eye pressure is an emergency. Immediate treatment is necessary to prevent permanent vision loss. This sudden rise in eye pressure is called acute angle-closure glaucoma.

Optic Neuritis

You may have eye pain and loss of vision if the nerve that links the back of the eyeball to the brain becomes inflamed. This nerve is known as the optic nerve.

An autoimmune eye disease or a viral or bacterial infection may produce the inflammation.

Sinusitis

A sinus infection can lead to pressure behind the eyes. As it builds up, the pressure can lead to pain in one or both eyes.

Migraines

Eye pain is a common side effect and symptom of a migraine headache or cluster headache.

Iritis

Iritis is uncommon. However, inflammation in the iris can lead to pain deep inside the eye.

Can Eye Pain Indicate Something Serious?

Depending on the cause, eye pain may resolve without treatment. Or the problem may require medical attention. 

You should contact your doctor if you experience severe eye pain or any discomfort that persists for more than a few hours. These symptoms can suggest a more serious underlying health condition.

When is Eye Pain an Emergency?

If you start experiencing vision loss with eye pain, this may indicate an emergency.

Other symptoms and side effects that require immediate medical attention include:

  • Severe eye pain
  • Eye pain resulting from trauma or exposure to a chemical or light
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Dramatic vision changes

Most eye discomfort will fade with no or mild treatment. Eye pain and the underlying conditions that lead to it rarely cause permanent damage to the eye. However, this is not always the case.

Some conditions that lead to pain may also result in more severe eye problems if they are untreated. For example, the pain and symptoms resulting from glaucoma are an indication of an upcoming problem. If glaucoma is not diagnosed and treated, it can lead to vision problems and eventually complete blindness. 

When to See a Doctor for Eye Pain

Speak with your eye doctor or surgeon if you are experiencing eye discomfort and you have had surgery in the past or if you have recently had eye surgery or an eye infection.

Seek medical attention if you experience painful eyes, and you wear contact lenses. You should also look for medical help if you have eye pain and a weakened immune system or if your eye pain does not improve following two to three days of medication.

Professional Treatment Options 

The professional treatment options for eye pain depend on the cause of the discomfort.

Some common professional treatment options for eye pain include:

Glasses

If you often wear contact lenses, allow your corneas time to heal by wearing glasses instead.

Antibiotics

Antibacterial drops and oral pills can help treat eye infections causing pain, including conjunctivitis and corneal abrasions.

Corticosteroids

Your doctor may provide corticosteroids for more severe infections like optic neuritis and anterior uveitis (iritis).

Pain Medications

If the pain is severe and leads to an interruption to your daily life, your doctor may prescribe a medication to help reduce the discomfort until the underlying condition is treated.

Eye Surgery

Surgery is sometimes necessary to repair damage from a foreign object or burn. However, this is rare. Those with glaucoma may require laser treatment for drainage in the eye.

Home Remedies for Eye Pain 

There are also home remedies for eye pain, including:

Rest

The best way to treat many of the conditions that lead to eye pain and improve your eye health is to allow your eyes to rest. Staring at a television or computer screen can lead to eye strain, so your doctor may ask you to rest with your eyes covered for a day or more.

Warm Compress

Doctors may tell patients with blepharitis or a stye to apply a warm, moist compress to their eyes. A warm compress helps clear the clogged oil gland or hair follicle.

Flushing

If a foreign object or chemical enters your eye, flush it with water or a saline solution to clear the irritant out.

Antihistamines

Over-the-counter eye drops and oral medications can help reduce the pain occurring from allergies in the eyes.

How to Prevent Eye Pain

Eye pain prevention begins with eye protection. Here are some ways you can prevent eye discomfort.

Protective Eyewear

Wear protective eyewear to prevent many of the causes of eye pain, including scratches and burns. Put on goggles or safety glasses when exercising, playing sports, mowing the lawn, or handling hand tools.

Construction workers, welders, and individuals who work around flying objects, chemicals, or welding gear must always wear protective eye gear.

Handle Chemicals with Caution

Handle chemicals and potent agents like household cleaners, detergents, and pest control with care. Always spray away from your body when using them.

Exercise Caution with Children’s Toys

Toys featuring spring-loaded components, toys that shoot, and play swords, guns, and bouncing balls can all hurt a child’s eye. Avoid giving your child these types of toys.

Contact Lens Hygiene

If you wear contact lenses, clean them thoroughly and routinely. Wear your glasses occasionally so your eyes can rest. Do not wear contacts for longer than directed.

Resources
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Jacobs, D.S. Diagnosis and Treatment of Ocular Pain: the Ophthalmologist’s Perspective. Curr Ophthalmol Rep 5, 271–275 (2017), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40135-017-0152-1 

Eye pain, Definition, Mayo Clinic, March 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/eye-pain/basics/definition/sym-20050744 

Eye pain, When to see a doctor, Mayo Clinic, March 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/eye-pain/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050744 

Belmonte, Carlos et al. “What Causes Eye Pain?.” Current ophthalmology reports vol. 3,2 (2015): 111-121, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4432221/ 

Kozarsky A. Eye Pain. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, editors. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths; 1990. Chapter 112, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216/ 

Friedman, Deborah I. “The Eye and Headache.” Continuum (Minneapolis, Minn.) vol. 21,4 Headache (2015): 1109-17, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26252594/

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