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 is common, but it’s rarely a symptom of a serious condition. Most often, the pain resolves on its own, without the need of medicine or treatment.
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, but it is rarely a sign of a larger, more serious condition.
However, eye pain accompanied by vision loss may be a symptom of an emergency medical issue. Call your ophthalmologist immediately if you begin to lose your vision while experiencing eye pain.
The following may cause eye pain that originates on the surface of the eye (ocular pain).
The most common cause of eye pain is simply having something in your eye. Whether it’s an eyelash, a piece of dirt, or makeup, having a foreign object in the eye can cause irritation, redness, watery eyes, and pain.
The conjunctiva is the tissue that lines the front of the eye and the underside of the eyelid. It can become infected and inflamed. Often, this is caused by an allergy or infection. Though the pain is usually mild, the inflammation causes itchiness, redness, and discharge in the eye. Conjunctivitis is also called pinkeye.
Contact Lens Irritation
People who wear contact lenses overnight or don’t disinfect their lenses properly are more susceptible to eye pain caused by irritation or infection.
The cornea, the clear surface that covers the eye, is susceptible to injuries. When you have a corneal abrasion, you will feel as if you have something in your eye. However, treatments that typically remove irritants from an eye (such as flushing with water) will not ease the pain and discomfort if you have a corneal abrasion.
Chemical burns and flash burns to the eye can cause significant pain. These burns are often the result of exposure to irritants such as bleach or from intense light sources, such as the sun, tanning booths, or the materials used in arc welding.
Blepharitis occurs when oil glands on the eyelid’s edge become infected or inflamed. This can cause pain.
If the blepharitis infection creates a nodule or raised bump on the eyelid, it is called a sty or chalazion. A sty can be very painful, and the area around the sty is usually very tender and sensitive to touch.
Eye pain felt within the eye itself (orbital pain) may be caused by the following conditions.
This condition occurs as intraocular pressure (the 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.
If the optic nerve (the nerve that connects the back of the eyeball to the brain) becomes inflamed, you may experience eye pain accompanied by a loss of vision. An autoimmune disease or a viral or bacterial infection may cause the inflammation.
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.
Eye pain is a common side effect of migraine headaches.
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.
While uncommon, inflammation in the iris can cause pain deep inside the eye.
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:
- unusually 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
The treatment for eye pain depends on the cause of the pain. The most common treatments include:
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.
If you frequently wear contact lenses, give your corneas time to heal by wearing your glasses.
Doctors may instruct patients with blepharitis or a sty to keep warm, moist towels on their eyes. This will help to clear the clogged oil gland or hair follicle.
If a foreign body or chemical gets into your eye, flush your eye with water or a saline solution to wash the irritant out.
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 and oral medicines can help ease the pain associated with allergies in the eyes.
Patients with glaucoma may use medicated eye drops to reduce the pressure building in their eyes.
For more serious infections, such as optic neuritis and iritis, your doctor may give you corticosteroids.
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 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.
Most eye pain will fade on its own or with mild treatment. Eye pain and the underlying conditions that cause it rarely cause permanent damage to the eye. However, that’s not always the case. Some conditions that cause eye pain may also cause problems that are more serious if they are not treated.
For example, the pain and symptoms caused by glaucoma are a sign of an impending problem. If not diagnosed and treated, glaucoma can cause vision problems and eventually total blindness. Your vision is nothing to gamble on. If you begin to experience eye pain (that is not caused by something like an eyelash in the eye), make an appointment to see your ophthalmologist as soon as possible.
Eye pain prevention starts with eye protection. The following are ways you can prevent eye pain:
- 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.
- Direct chemicals and potent agents—such as household cleaners, detergents, and pest control spray—away from your body when using them.
- Avoid giving your child a toy that can injure his or her eyes. Toys with spring-loaded components, toys that shoot, and toy swords, guns, and bouncing balls can all injure a child’s eye.
- Clean your contacts thoroughly and routinely. Wear your glasses on occasion to allow your eyes time to rest. Do not wear contacts longer than they are intended to be worn or used.