A feeling of pressure or pain behind your eyes doesn’t always stem from a problem inside your eyes. It usually starts in another part of your head.
Though eye conditions can cause eye pain and vision problems, they rarely cause pressure. Even glaucoma, which is caused by a buildup of pressure inside the eye, doesn’t cause a feeling of pressure.
Eye conditions like pink eye or allergies can cause eye pain, but not pressure. Pain generally feels like a stabbing, burning, or stinging sensation. Pressure behind the eyes feels like fullness or a stretching sensation inside the eye.
Keep reading to learn more about pressure behind the eye and its possible causes and treatments.
A few conditions can cause pressure behind the eye, including:
- sinus problems
- Graves’ disease
- damage to the optic nerve
- tooth pain
Sinusitis, or a sinus infection, happens when bacteria or viruses get into the space behind your nose, eyes, and cheeks. These germs cause your sinuses to swell up and your nose to fill with mucus. With a sinus infection, you’ll feel pressure in the upper part of your face, including behind your eyes.
Additional symptoms of sinusitis may include:
- pain behind your nose, eyes, and cheeks
- stuffed nose
- mucus, which might be thick, yellow, or green, draining from your nose
- bad breath
- ear pain or pressure
Two types of headaches, tension and cluster headaches, can cause a feeling of pressure behind the eyes.
Cluster headaches are an extremely painful type of headache that comes and goes. You might get cluster headaches for a few days or weeks, and then not have any headaches for many months or years.
In addition to pressure behind the eye, symptoms of a headache may include:
- pain in your head that feels tight, aching, or intense
- soreness in your neck and shoulder muscles
- red, teary eyes
- redness or sweating of your face
- swelling on one side of your face
- drooping eyelid
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the thyroid gland. This makes the gland release too much of its hormone. Graves’ disease affects the eye muscles, causing the eyes to bulge. Many people with this disease also have a feeling of pressure behind their eyes, which gets worse when they move their eyes. Additional symptoms may include:
Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) or lupus can cause swelling, or inflammation, behind the eye. This swelling can damage the optic nerve, which transmits visual information from your eyes to your brain. Optic neuritis can cause pain that might feel like pressure or an ache behind your eye. You may also experience:
- vision loss in one eye
- loss of side vision or color vision
- pain that gets worse when you move your eyes
- flashing lights when you move your eyes
It might seem unlikely that your teeth could affect your eyes, but a problem with your bite or jaw alignment can make you tense the muscles of your face. This muscle tension can cause a headache, which may include a feeling of pain and pressure behind your eyes.
Call your doctor right away if you have any of these more serious symptoms:
- high fever
- vision loss
- severe headache
- loss of feeling or movement in any part of your body
Your family doctor should be able to determine what’s causing you to feel pressure behind your eyes. They may also refer you to one of these specialists:
- ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor, a doctor who treats sinus and allergy problems
- neurologist, a doctor who specializes in the brain and nervous system
- ophthalmologist, a doctor who specializes in the eyes
The doctor will start by asking about your symptoms, such as what the pressure feels like, how long you’ve had it, and what might have triggered it. You may also need tests, including:
- Endoscopy. During this procedure, your doctor will apply a numbing medicine to the inside of your nose and then insert a thin, lighted scope. The camera on the end of the scope allows your doctor to look for any swelling or growths in your sinuses.
- MRI. This test uses computers and radio waves to make pictures of your brain and other organs.
- CT scan. This test uses X-rays to create pictures of your brain and other organs.
- Ultrasound. High-frequency sound waves make pictures of your thyroid gland or other structures inside your body with an ultrasound test.
- Blood test. Your doctor may order blood tests to check your thyroid hormone level or look for the antibodies that are produced when you have an autoimmune disease.
- Radioactive iodine uptake. This test looks for thyroid disease, including Graves’ disease. Your thyroid gland uses iodine to make thyroid hormones. This test gives you a small amount of radioactive iodine and then scans your thyroid with a special camera to see how much iodine your thyroid pulls in.
If your doctor thinks the feeling of pressure stems from your eye, you’ll need an eye exam. The eye doctor might shine a bright light into your eye to check the health of your optic nerve and other structures inside your eye.
For a jaw or tooth problem, you’ll need to see a dentist. The dentist will examine your jaw and bite to see if a misalignment is causing muscle strain and the sensation of pressure behind your eye.
Your treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your symptoms.
For sinusitis, if bacteria caused the infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat it. For a chronic (long-term) sinus infection, you might need to take antibiotics for three to four weeks.
Antibiotics won’t kill viruses. You can treat a viral infection by rinsing your nose with a solution of salt and water. This solution is also known as a saline solution. Decongestants and pain relievers can also help relieve your discomfort until the infection goes away.
Talk to your doctor if the sinus pressure and other symptoms don’t go away. You might need sinus surgery to treat the problem.
For headaches, you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as aspirin (Bufferin, Bayer Advanced Aspirin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). Some headache medicines combine aspirin or acetaminophen with caffeine or a sedative. For example, Excedrin Migraine combines aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine.
Your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain reliever such as a narcotic, a muscle relaxer, or a triptan drug like sumatriptan (Imitrex) or zolmitriptan (Zomig) to help prevent or treat headaches.
If you have Graves’ disease, your doctor can prescribe a medication that blocks your thyroid gland’s ability to make hormones. Your doctor may also recommend radioactive iodine treatment or surgery to destroy or remove your thyroid gland. After this treatment, you’ll need to take medicine to replace the hormone that’s no longer produced by your thyroid gland.
For optic neuritis, your doctor might give you steroid medications to bring down the swelling in your optic nerve. If MS is causing the optic neuritis, your doctor may prescribe drugs like interferon-beta-1a (Avonex, Rebif, Rebif Rebidose) to prevent more nerve damage.
If you have a bite or jaw alignment issue, your dentist can do a procedure to correct your alignment.
Your outlook depends on which condition’s causing the pressure behind your eye. You’ll have the best chance of relieving the pressure if you follow your doctor’s instructions carefully and take any medications you’re prescribed.