Eye Pain: What Are the Causes?

Eye pain is common, but it’s rarely a symptom of a serious condition. Most often, the pain resolves without medicine or treatment. Eye pain is also known as ophthalmalgia.

Depending on where you experience the discomfort, eye pain can fall into one of two categories: Ocular pain occurs on the eye’s surface, and orbital pain occurs within the eye.

Eye pain that occurs on the surface may be a scratching, burning, or itching sensation. Surface pain is usually caused by irritation from a foreign object, infection, or trauma. Often, this type of eye pain is easily treated with eye drops or rest.

Eye pain that occurs deeper within the eye may feel aching, gritty, stabbing, or throbbing. This kind of eye pain may require more in-depth treatment.

Where Does It Hurt?

Sometimes discomfort or pain results from a problem in your eye or the parts around it, such as:

  • Extraocular muscles: They rotate your eye.
  • Nerves: They carry visual information from your eyes to your brain.
  • Eyelids: Outside coverings that protect and spread moisture over your eyes.
  • Cornea: The clear window in the front of your eye that focuses light
    Sclera: The whites of your eyes
  • Conjunctiva: The ultra-thin covering of your sclera and the inside of your eyelid
    Iris: The colored part of your eye, with the pupil in the middle
  • Orbit: A bony cave (eye socket) in your skull where the eye and its muscles are located.

What causes orbital pain?

Eye pain felt within the eye itself may be caused by the following conditions:

Glaucoma

This condition occurs as intraocular pressure, or pressure inside the eye, rises. Additional symptoms caused by glaucoma include nausea, headache, and loss of vision.
A sudden rise in pressure, called acute angle closure glaucoma, is an emergency, and immediate treatment is needed to prevent permanent vision loss.

Sinusitis

An infection of the sinuses can cause pressure behind the eyes to build. As it does, it can create pain in one or both eyes.

Migraines

Eye pain is a common side effect of migraine attacks.

Injury

Penetrating injuries to the eye, which can occur when a person is hit with an object or is involved in an accident, can cause significant eye pain.

Optic neuritis

You may experience eye pain accompanied by a loss of vision if the nerve that connects the back of the eyeball to the brain, known as the optic nerve, becomes inflamed. An autoimmune disease or a bacterial or viral infection may cause the inflammation.

When is eye pain an emergency?

If you begin experiencing vision loss in addition to eye pain, this may be a sign of an emergency situation. Other symptoms that need immediate medical attention include:

  • severe eye pain
  • eye pain caused by trauma or exposure to a chemical or light
  • abdominal pain and vomiting that accompanies eye pain
  • pain so severe it’s impossible to touch the eye
  • sudden and dramatic vision changes

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How is eye pain treated?

The treatment for eye pain depends on the cause of the pain. The most common treatments include:

Warm compress

Doctors may instruct people with blepharitis or a sty to apply warm, moist towels to their eyes. This will help to clear the clogged oil gland or hair follicle.

Home care

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

Glasses

If you frequently wear contact lenses, give your corneas time to heal by wearing your glasses.

Antibiotics

Antibacterial drops and oral antibiotics may be used to treat infections of the eye that are causing pain, including conjunctivitis and corneal abrasions.

Eye drops

People with glaucoma may use medicated eye drops to reduce the pressure building in their eyes.

Antihistamines

Eye drops and oral medicines can help ease the pain associated with allergies in the eyes.

Glasses

If you frequently wear contact lenses, give your corneas time to heal by wearing your glasses.

Flushing

If a foreign body or chemical gets into your eye, flush your eye with water or a saline solution to wash the irritant out.

Pain medications

If the pain is severe and causes an interruption to your day-to-day life, your doctor may prescribe a pain medicine to help ease the pain until the underlying condition is treated.

Surgery

Surgery is sometimes needed to repair damage done by a foreign body or burn. However, this is rare. Individuals with glaucoma may need to have a laser treatment to improve drainage in the eye.

How can you prevent eye pain?

Eye pain prevention starts with eye protection. The following are ways you can prevent eye pain:

Exercise caution with children’s toys

Avoid giving your child a toy that can injure their eyes. Toys with spring-loaded components, toys that shoot, and toy swords, guns, and bouncing balls can all injure a child’s eye.

Wear protective eyewear

Prevent many causes of eye pain, such as scratches and burns, by wearing goggles or safety glasses when playing sports, exercising, mowing the lawn, or working with hand tools.

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

Contact lens hygiene

Clean your contacts thoroughly and routinely. Wear your glasses on occasion to allow your eyes time to rest. Don’t wear contacts longer than they are intended to be worn or used.

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