Eye pain is a common complaint that causes discomfort in and around the eyes. Clinically, it is termed as ophthalmalgia. If the pain is on the eye surface, it is known as ocular pain and if the pain is present within the eye it is called orbital pain. In most cases, eye pain can subside without the use of any medicine or treatment. However, in rare cases, it could be a sign of an underlying serious disease. If you experience severe eye pain along with problems in vision, then do consult your doctor immediately.
What causes eye pain?
The common causes of ocular eye pain include:
Foreign objects: One of the common causes of ocular pain is when a foreign object comes in contact with the eyes. These can cause irritation in the eyes along with redness, and pain in the eyes. The common foreign objects that can affect the eyes include cosmetics, eyelashes, dirt, and irritants. Moreover, wearing contact lenses overnight or not disinfecting the lenses properly can also lead to eye pain and irritation.
Eye injury: An injury caused in and around the eye can cause extreme pain. It could be due to minor scratches when hit by a ball or deep wounds following an accident. This can cause irritation, pain, and swelling of the eyes. Chemicals burns related eye injury caused due to exposure to irritants such as bleaches, acids, or alkaline products can harm the eyes and you might need immediate medical attention.
Conjunctivitis: It is a condition which causes inflammation of the conjunctiva, a tissue that lines the front of the eye. It could be due to an allergic reaction or an infection caused by a virus or a bacteria. Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, can also cause itchiness, redness and watery eyes.
Blepharitis and sty: Blepharitis is a condition in which the oil glands in the eyelid are inflamed and infected. If this infection causes a raised bump on the eyelid, it is known as a sty or chalazion. This can extremely painful and sensitive to touch. This condition tends to recur if there is no proper treatment.
Corneal abrasion: Another common cause of ocular eye pain is a corneal abrasion. It is a condition in which the cornea (white area of the eye) is injured. This causes pain and discomfort in the eyes which fails to show improvement even after flushing water. It is a sign that you should consult an ophthalmologist to get it treated.
The common causes of orbital eye pain include:
Sinusitis: It is an infection which causes inflammation and swelling of the tissue lining the sinuses. When the infection occurs, it can cause pressure to build up behind the eyes, leading to eye pain. It can cause pain in either one or both the eyes depending on the location and severity of the sinus infection. Other common symptoms of sinusitis include thick nasal discharge, headache, and fever.
Migraine: Most people suffering from a migraine headache experience eye pain. These type of headaches usually cause throbbing pain in the head and in the eyes. It is mostly accompanied by sensitivity to light or nausea and vomiting.
Glaucoma: It is a condition that is caused due to an increased intraocular pressure or pressure inside the eyes. One of the common complications in diabetics, it can affect the optic nerve and may even lead to permanent blindness if not diagnosed and managed in time. The symptoms of glaucoma other than eye pain are a headache, decreased peripheral vision, redness in the eyes, pain on exposure to light, and vision changes such as halos around the light.
Optic neuritis: This is a condition in which the optic nerve, the nerve that connects the eyeball to the brain, gets inflamed. It could be due to a viral or bacterial infection or an underlying autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis. It usually starts off as a mild pain in the eyes which gets worse when the eyes are moved. It can lead to partial or complete loss of vision if not treated.
Keratitis: An inflammation or infection of the cornea, keratitis can affect both the eyes. If caused due to wearing contact lens for a long time, it is known as contact lens keratitis. If it is caused by herpes simplex virus infection, then it is known as herpes simplex keratitis. It usually affects only one eye and causes eye pain along with redness and watery eyes, impaired vision and blisters on the eyelids.
How is eye pain treated?
The treatment for any type of eye pain is dependant on the cause of it. In some cases, home care is advised, while in some it is important to use medicines to relieve eye pain after consulting a doctor. Here are a few tips to treat and prevent eye pain.
– Staring at a computer screen or TV can strain the eyes. Allow the eyes to rest.
– If you wear contact lenses frequently, follow all safety rules and hygiene tips such as cleaning the lens before and after use, not wearing it at night, etc.
– If you experience eye pain, you can try warm compress as it keeps the eyes moist and helps clear clogged pores. This can help people with blepharitis or sty.
– Flush your eyes with plain water if any chemical or foreign body gets into the eyes to wash out the irritants.
– Do not use eye drops or anti-allergy medicine without consulting a doctor as it might worsen the condition.
-Never self-medicate. Antibiotics and pain relievers can help but it is wise to consult a doctor before taking any medicine to fight eye pain and infection.
– In some cases such as glaucoma, surgery might be recommended to treat the condition.
When to see a doctor for eye pain?
Mild pain in the eyes or irritation is common and in most cases can be treated at home. However, if you experience severe pain in the eye along with changes in vision, it is a sign to consult a doctor. Moreover, you should see a doctor if you experience any warning signs such as:
-Fever, and chills
-Decreased sharpness of vision
-Swelling or bulging of the eye
(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, General Physician)
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.
Belmonte C, Acosta MC, Merayo-Lloves J, Gallar J. What Causes Eye Pain? Curr Ophthalmol Rep. 2015;3(2):111-121.
Jacobs DS. Diagnosis and Treatment of Ocular Pain: the Ophthalmologist’s Perspective. Curr Ophthalmol Rep. 2017;5(4):271-275.
Bowen RC, Koeppel JN, Christensen CD, et al. The Most Common Causes of Eye Pain at 2 Tertiary Ophthalmology and Neurology Clinics. J Neuroophthalmol. 2018 Sep;38(3):320-327.