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Common Causes of Eye Pain: All You Need to Know

Gina Walters
Published

LAST UPDATED:

eye pain

Eye pain is a symptom that many of us have encountered at some point in our lives. 

There are two types of eye discomforts – surface eye pain and the more painful orbital eye pain. 

Whether it’s a fleeting discomfort or a persistent throb, understanding the potential causes can guide us toward effective solutions. 

In this article, we dive deep into the reasons behind these irritating eye aches and how to prevent them. 

Surface eye pain

This type of pain occurs on the surface of your eye and can be described as itching, burning, or shooting pain. 

It often occurs due to an infection or a foreign object causing irritation in the membrane covering your eye’s surface. 

Individuals with surface eye pains usually visit ophthalmologists with three issues – dry eyes, infections or injuries, and contact lens complications. 

Dry eyes

dry eyesSource: angeljana
Closeup of a dry eye

Dry eyes is a condition involving insufficient tear production or poor tear quality. Medically known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, this condition causes a lack of lubrication in the eye.

Tears play an essential role in maintaining eye health and providing clear vision. 

You are likely to experience dry eye symptoms such as a stinging, burning, or scratchy sensation in your eyes. 

To learn more about the causes of dry eyes, read our article: Common Dry Eye Causes and Effects 

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Infections or injuries

An eye infection occurs when harmful microorganisms—bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasites—invade any part of the eyeball or the area surrounding the eye. 

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye) is the most prevalent eye infection, affecting around 6 million people in the United States annually.

It is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin, clear layer that covers the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. 

Other eye infections that may cause eye pain include Stye, Keratitis, and Endophthalmitis.

Read our article: Keratitis vs Conjunctivitis: How are They Different? to remove any confusion about different eye infections.

Warning:
Do not attempt to treat viral or allergic eye infections with antibiotics as they are specifically designed to fight bacteria. Doing this may cause further complications. 

Contact lens complications

Contact lenses are a popular alternative to eyeglasses, offering both cosmetic and practical benefits. 

However, improper use and care of contact lenses can lead to various complications.


Some of the most common contact lens complications include Contact Lens-Associated Dry Eyes, Overwear Syndrome, and Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis (GPC).

Wearing contact lenses can reduce tear stability, leading to symptoms of dry eyes like burning, redness, and intermittent blurred vision.

To prevent complications from contact lenses, please practice proper hygiene, avoid wearing your lenses to sleep, limit wear time, and replace them regularly. 

Orbital eye pain

Orbital eye pain refers to a deep, aching pain sensation felt behind or within the eye.

It indicates that the source of discomfort originates from deeper structures within the orbit rather than just the eye’s surface.

The three most common reasons for orbital eye pain are — Sinusitis, Optic Neuritis, and Glaucoma.


Sinusitis

Sinusitis (also known as Rhinosinusitis) is an inflammation or swelling of the tissue lining the sinuses. 

They are air-filled spaces within the bones surrounding the nose, which are connected to the nasal passage. 

When the sinuses become infected or inflamed, the pressure can lead to intense eye pain due to their proximity to the eyes. 

Optic Neuritis

Optic neuritis is an inflammation of the optic nerve, which transmits visual information from the retina to the brain. 

This condition can cause a range of visual disturbances and is often associated with autoimmune disorders like Multiple Sclerosis (MS). 

Patients with Optic Neuritis may experience pain or a dull ache in the eye when moving the eye.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve, vital for good vision. 

This damage is often caused by abnormally high pressure in the eye (Ocular Hypertension) and can lead to vision loss if not properly managed. 

It’s one of the leading causes of blindness for people over 60.

Glaucoma symptoms include severe headache, eye pain, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, halos around lights, and eye redness.

There are different types of Glaucoma, you can read our article: Different Types of Glaucoma: A Guide to Causes and Treatment to know more.

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Other common causes

In today’s digital age, prolonged screen time is unavoidable, and as a result, many suffer from Digital Eye Strain. 

Two other common causes of eye pain are Migraines and Styes and Chalazia. 

Digital eye strain

Digital Eye Strain, also known as Computer Vision Syndrome, refers to a group of eye-and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer or mobile use. 

Staring at screens for hours can lead to digital eye strain, with symptoms like pain, dryness, and blurred vision. 

Some also experience itching or burning sensation with headaches related to the strain on the eyes.

Migraines

A man suffering from headacheSource: SIphotography
Headache is a minor side effect of consuming Vardenafil

Migraines are a type of headache characterized by intense, throbbing pain that can be accompanied by various symptoms, including eye pain. 

During a migraine, individuals might squint or frown without realizing it, leading to muscle tension around the eyes and forehead. This tension can contribute to the sensation of eye pain.

Styes

A stye is an acute infection that typically affects the oil glands located at the base of the eyelashes (external hordeolum) or within the eyelid (internal hordeolum). 

It is usually caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus Aureus.

The red, painful lump near the edge of the eyelid looks like a boil or a pimple and causes tenderness in the affected area.

Diagnosing eye pain

Diagnosing eye pain typically involves several steps, which an ophthalmologist or optometrist will perform to identify the underlying cause. 

You should see a doctor for eye pain if you experience sudden onset of pain, vision changes, pain with eye movement, red eye, light sensitivity, etc.

Prompt medical attention can help prevent potentially serious eye problems resulting in permanent damage or vision loss. 

When you visit a doctor for eye pain, they may perform several diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your discomfort. 

The type of tests conducted can vary based on the symptoms and the suspected diagnosis. 

These tests can help doctors pinpoint the specific cause of eye pain, allowing them to prescribe the most effective treatment. 

Visual Acuity Test: To assess how well you can see at various distances.

Slit Lamp Examination: To examine the structures of your eye under high magnification. The slit lamp can detect a range of conditions, from dry eye syndrome to cataracts.

Tonometry: To measure the pressure inside your eye, which is essential for diagnosing Glaucoma.

Pupil Dilation: To enlarge your pupils with drops so that the interior of your eyes can be thoroughly examined, including the retina and optic nerve.

Fluorescein Staining: To apply a special dye to the surface of your eye to make scratches, foreign bodies, or infections visible under a blue light.

Ophthalmoscopy (Fundoscopy): To inspect the back of your eye, including the retina, optic disk, and blood vessels.

Corneal Topography: To map the surface curvature of the cornea, which can reveal conditions such as keratoconus.

Ultrasonography: To use high-frequency sound waves to view the inside of the eye when it’s not possible to see it through a direct examination due to opacities like cataracts or bleeding.

Schirmer’s Test: To measure tear production and to determine if dry eyes might be causing your symptoms.

Fact:
Discuss all relevant information about your symptoms, including when they started, their frequency, and any accompanying sensations like itching, burning, or vision changes.

Treatment options for eye pain

Understanding the appropriate treatment for eye pain is crucial for relief and recovery. The treatments range from simple home remedies to medical interventions or surgery. 

Resting your eyes periodically or applying a warm compress can help with strain or styes. 

Lubricating drops can help soothe dry or irritated eyes, while a sterile saline solution can flush out foreign objects. 

Medical treatments like antibiotics can help address bacterial infections, while antivirals combat viruses. 

Conditions like Glaucoma may require specialized medications. Surgery can be needed for Cataracts, Glaucoma, or severe injuries. 

Proper diagnosis is key, and persistent or severe pain warrants immediate medical attention for optimal eye health.

Prevention Tips for Eye Pain

Eye pain can be a disruptive and sometimes alarming experience, but many of the common causes can be prevented with proper eye care and safety measures. 

Safety tips

Always wash your hands thoroughly before touching your eyes, especially when inserting or removing contact lenses. 

Make sure your contact lenses are properly cleaned and disinfected and never wear them longer than recommended. 

Avoid sharing towels, washcloths, or eye cosmetics, as these can be vehicles for transmitting infections.

Be mindful of eye strain, which can cause pain. 

Take regular breaks using the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. 

When engaged in sports, wear safety goggles or face shields designed for the specific activity. 

For tasks like gardening, or home repairs, don protective eyewear to shield your eyes from harmful debris or chemicals.

Regular eye examinations

Tonometry (Glaucoma eye checkup)
Regular eye checkup

Routine eye examinations by a qualified eye care professional are vital for preventing eye pain associated with various eye diseases. 

These exams can detect conditions like Glaucoma, Dry Eye Syndrome, or refractive errors early on when they are most treatable.

Discuss all concerns with your eye doctor, including any family history of eye conditions, and your lifestyle and workplace habits that could impact your eye health. 

Your doctor can provide personalized advice on protecting your vision and preventing discomfort.

Incorporating these eye care strategies into your daily routine can significantly reduce your risk of experiencing eye pain. 

Prevention is always better than cure, especially when it comes to your eyes, one of your most vital senses.

Takeaway

Eye pain can stem from various sources, ranging from minor irritations to potentially serious conditions. 

Recognizing the underlying causes of eye pain is crucial for seeking appropriate treatment. It usually occurs due to infections, injuries, or contact lens complications. 

However, more complex issues like Glaucoma or migraines, may also contribute. Timely intervention can relieve discomfort and safeguard your eye health. 

Remember, seeking professional medical advice is essential for accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment. 

Don’t hesitate to consult a healthcare provider if you experience persistent or severe eye pain, or if it’s accompanied by other worrying symptoms. 

Citations:
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