What Causes Eye Pain

Eye Pain Overview

Eye pain can occur on the surface of your eye or within your eye’s deeper structures. Eye pain that’s on the surface of your eye might be described as itching, burning or shooting pain. Surface eye pain is often related to a foreign object in your eye, an eye infection, or anything that irritates or inflames the membrane covering the surface of your eye.

You might describe eye pain originating deeper within your eye as throbbing or aching. This type of eye pain may be linked to a serious medical condition.

Severe eye pain especially accompanied by any degree of vision loss may be a signal that you need medical attention urgently.

What Causes Eye Pain?

Discomfort or pain can be caused by a problem in the eye or structures around it, including:

  • Cornea: Clear window in the front of the eye that focuses incoming light
  • Sclera: White outside wall of the eye
  • Conjunctiva: Ultra-thin covering of the sclera and inside the eyelid
  • Iris: Colored part of the eye, with the pupil in the middle
  • Orbit: Bony cave where the eye and eye muscles are
  • Extraocular muscles: Muscles that rotate the eye
  • Nerves: Carry visual information from the eyes to the brain
  • Eyelids: Outside covering of the eye, which protects and continually spreads moisture over the eyes

Eye problems can include:

  • Blepharitis: Inflammation or infection of the eyelid that causes irritation or pain.
  • Conjunctivitis (commonly called pinkeye): Inflammation of the conjunctiva caused by allergies or infections (viral or bacterial). Blood vessels in the conjunctiva become engorged, and the normally white part of the eye looks red. Other symptoms usually include itchiness and discharge.
  • Corneal abrasions: A scratch on the cornea is called an abrasion. It can be very painful. The cornea is vulnerable to injuries from children’s flying fingers, errant tree branches, or tennis balls. With antibiotic drops and your doctor closely tracking your recovery, corneal abrasions tend to get better without further problems.
  • Corneal infections (called keratitis): Inflamed or infected cornea sometimes caused from shingles (herpes zoster), or from wearing contact lenses overnight or wearing lenses that haven’t been properly cleaned and disinfected.
  • Foreign bodies: Something in the eye a bit of dirt, plant debris, or a fragment of a contact lens. These are usually just irritating, and tears or water rinse them out. If not removed, foreign bodies can cause corneal abrasions.
  • Glaucoma: Eye condition that usually has no early symptoms. In the case of acute angle closure glaucoma, though, pressure inside the eye rises suddenly. Symptoms include severe eye pain, nausea and vomiting, headache, and decreased vision. These symptoms are an emergency and need immediate treatment to prevent blindness.
  • Iritis or uveitis: Inflammation inside the eye, which is uncommon. Can be due to trauma, infections, or autoimmune conditions. Symptoms include pain, red eye, and, often, decreased vision.
  • Optic neuritis : When the nerve traveling from the back of the eyeball into the brain becomes inflamed. Multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune conditions or infections are often the cause. Symptoms include loss of vision and sometimes pain.
  • Sinusitis: Infection in one of the sinus cavities, which can create pressure behind the eyes, causing eye pain on one or both sides.
  • Stye (also called a hordeolum): An often painful infection or inflammation of the edges of the eyelid caused from the eyelash hair follicles or from oil glands. Usually a stye has a very localized, very tender area on one eyelid.

Symptoms of Eye Pain

Pain is a variable measure. Each person may interpret pain differently.

Eye pain and other symptoms often described by those experiencing eye problems are summarized below:

  • Pain in or around the eye
  • Partial or complete loss of vision
  • Extreme light sensitivity
  • Double vision
  • Halos (colored circles or halos around lights)
  • New floaters (spots, strings, cobwebs, or shadows seen before the eyes)
  • Limitation of normal eye movement
  • Pain with movement of the eye in different directions
  • Sensation of flashes or streaks of light
  • Severe headache associated with eye pain

Your doctor or an ophthalmologist may see these signs as evidence of eye problems:

  • Redness of the white of the eye (conjunctiva)
  • Redness that flares out and surrounds the colored part of the eye (iris)
  • Irregularly shaped pupil
  • Bulging or protrusion of the eye
  • Swelling or redness of the surrounding eye tissue, including the eyelids
  • Blood or pus inside the front of the eye (within the colored part of the eye)
  • Eye discharge, excessive tearing, crusting, or eyelids stuck together (especially upon awakening)
  • A scratch to the cornea or eyeball

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.

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