Eye pain—that stabbing, throbbing, burning, gritty, sharp, aching, “something in my eye” feeling—can be very uncomfortable. Many people seek medical care when they have eye pain, and for good reason. Eye pain can take two forms: ocular pain or orbital pain. The meaning of the word pain is generally open for interpretation. Some people describe it as in their eyes, around their eyes, behind their eyes, etc. Some people have eye pain with movement, while others experience eye pain when blinking.
Eye Pain Symptoms
Depending on the cause of the eye pain, additional symptoms may include:
- Eye discharge
- Red, bloodshot eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Headache or migraine
- Burning sensation
- Feeling of foreign body in eye
- Vision changes (should be considered a medical emergency)
- Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
Eye Pain Causes
As mentioned above, there are two categories of eye pain, ocular and orbital. Most causes should be treated by an eye care provider.
Ocular pain comes from the outer structure of the eye and can be caused by any of the following conditions:
- Pink Eye: This is the most common eye problem, and it can be caused by allergies, a bacterial or viral infection, or a chemical burn. Pain is usually mild and the eye appears pink or red..
- Stye or hordeolum: An infection of the eyelid glands can cause eye pain along the eyelid. A lump forms within the eyelid (usually due to a clogged tear gland), and becomes painful to the touch.
- Blepharitis: Debris along the eyelashes can become bothersome and cause a gritty sensation, as well as redness along the eyelids. Depending on the severity, the irritation can become painful.
- Corneal Abrasions/Ulcers: These two conditions are very common causes of eye pain and are most often associated with contact lenses. Abrasions occur when the cornea is scratched, and ulcers occur from infections. Often this will cause severe pain and a constant feeling that something is in the eye.
- Chemical Burn: This can be extremely painful, and is caused by exposure to chemicals such as acid or household cleaners. Alkaline substances can also cause chemical burns in the eye. Alkaline chemical burns are usually not painful but can be devastating to eye health if not treated immediately.
Orbital pain is usually caused by a disease of the eye, and can be described as a deep, dull ache behind or within the eye itself. Some of the diseases or conditions that can cause orbital pain are:
- Glaucoma: Glaucoma in general is mostly painless, but if the pressure builds up very quickly, orbital pain occurs and the condition can become an emergency. This pain may be accompanied by vomiting or nausea.
- Migraines: A very common form of eye pain that is associated with headaches.
- Optic Neuritis: This generally manifests as pain on eye movement. The condition is characterized by the inflammation of the optic nerve. Viral or bacterial infections can be the cause of this condition. Immediate attention is necessary.
- Iritis: The iris is the colored part of the eye, and when it becomes inflamed it can cause deep pain and light sensitivity.
- Trauma: Trauma can be caused by a variety of things. Examples of trauma include a blow to the eye scratches, chemical burns, and accidents.
Diagnosing Eye Pain
If you are unsure what is causing the eye pain, you should seek medical attention from your eye care provider. He or she will ask you about the severity of your pain and when it started. You will also be given a thorough eye examination to rule out certain conditions and diseases. Your eye doctor will check your vision, the pressure in your eyes, and your eye muscle movement. He or she will also examine your eyes with a microscope. If the problem is not on the surface of the eye you will most probably be dilated so your doctor can examine the back of your eyes (the retina).
Once a correct diagnosis is made an appropriate treatment plan can be created.
Treatment for Eye Pain
If you are experiencing eye pain you should seek medical attention. If you feel that something may be stuck in your eye, you can flush the eye with sterile saline solution. Try to avoid touching or rubbing your eyes, as this can increase irritation or cause further complications and/or damage. If the pain is mild, you can try taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen. All other treatments should be performed by a doctor, who can determine the cause of eye pain. Treatments will vary depending on the diagnosis and severity of the problem.
When to See an Eye Doctor
If you begin experiencing the following symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:
- Eye is too painful to touch
- Pain or redness is severe
- Sudden vision changes
- Abdominal pain or nausea/vomiting accompanies eye pain
- Photophobia (light sensitivity)
Likewise, seek medical attention immediately if any of the following events occur:
- Foreign object in eye
- Scratch on the eye
- Chemicals splash into eye
As mentioned before eye pain is a relatively loose term, and it is important to differentiate among various types of eye pain. Some people confuse eye pain for headaches or straining. For instance the eyes can become tired after a long day at work, or after several hours of reading or staring at the computer. This could mean that your eyes are straining and a new glasses prescription is necessary. If you are truly experiencing eye pain, it can be an indicator of an underlying condition such as optic neuritis, glaucoma, corneal abrasions, or ulcers. In any case, eye pain is usually reason to be examined by an eye care professional.
Talking to Your Eye Doctor
If you have eye pain, contact your eye doctor. Use the following questions to help you get started:
- Which diagnostic tests will be used to diagnose my eye pain?
- What is the reason for my eye pain?
- Which over-the-counter products will reduce my eye pain?
- Based on the cause of my eye pain, what treatment options do I have?
- Which additional symptoms should I watch for?
- How long will it be before I have relief?
Did you know … In Nepal, herbal doctors advise people with eye problems to stare at the moon.
- R. Abel, Jr. MD “The Eye Care Revolution” (Kensington Books, 2004) xx
- H. Winter, MD, S. Moore, MD, K. Yoder, MD “Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery” (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2006) 40
- J. Lavine, MD “The Eye Care Sourcebook” (Contemporary Books, 2001) 222