Eye pain

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 10, 2015
StartSymptomsEye pain

Eye pain (also known as ophthalmalgia) can have many causes. In many cases, a doctor needs to look at the eye to ensure that the correct treatment is given. Without the right treatment, problems could develop in the eye and may affect the sight.


Definition & Facts

The human eye is complex and has a number of parts. There are muscles, nerves, the eye socket, eyelids, the cornea, the sclera (white outside part of the eye), the iris, and more. Problems can occur in any one of these parts, or in multiple parts.

Pain can develop with or without a known cause, and other symptoms may occur with the pain. Eye problems are expected to grow through the years, resulting in a doubling of eye cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration, by the year 2050.


Eye pain can be the result of a scratch on the cornea (the colored part of the eye), called corneal abrasions, which may be caused by an object hitting the eye such as a pebble, a twig, a ball, finger nails, and more. An object, even a small one, can get in or on the eye or eye socket, and it will also cause eye pain. Inflammation (infection) can lead to pain and problems in several parts of the eye.

Inflammation can occur in the cornea as a result of shingles, in the lining on the inside of the eyelid and eye, called the conjuntiva, or of the eyelid itself, called blepharitis. Sinus problems can also cause eye pain in one or both eyes. Pressure is built up when there are sinus issues. Migraines, allergies and contact lenses can also lead to eye pain.

A sty can be painful, and it is often the result of an infection. Eye injuries have also been caused from tanning booths from the strong UV rays, including burns and inflamed corneas. Apart from an actual injury to the eye, acute glaucoma can quickly cause extreme pain in the eye. It is not the most common form, but pressure inside the eye can build quickly, leading to severe pain, nausea, vomiting, reduced sight, and headache.

When to see a doctor

A number of causes of eye pain do not need to be seen by a doctor. A foreign object in the eye, for instance, can often be removed naturally by tears, or by gently removing it with the fingers. More severe problems will mean that a doctor should be seen quickly. Remember that eyesight is valuable and irreplaceable, and some eye pain may indicate a serious problem that could permanently affect vision. If the following symptoms occur, medical attention should be sought quickly:

  • Severe eye pain
  • Sudden changes in vision
  • Nausea or vomiting with eye pain
  • Eye becomes too painful to touch
  • The eye starts bulging outward
  • Eye does not move easily
  • Seeing halos around the lights
  • Pain deep within the eye.

Other reasons or occasions to see a doctor for eye pain includes:

Individuals who wear contact lenses are more susceptible to pain in the eye. Lenses should not be worn overnight, and careful disinfection is also important to avoid eye problems.

Several types of tests may be used to determine the cause of the pain in the eye if the reason is not evident. The diagnostic tests may include:

  • A lamp with a slit to peer into the eye.
  • Drops to dilate the eye to see into it better.
  • A dye (florescein) may be used to detect abrasions and similar problems.
  • If glaucoma is suspected, a pressure gauge will be used (tonometer).

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment options are varied and always depend on the cause of the eye pain. For a number of problems, eye drops will be used that are antibacterial, and an oral antibiotic may also be given. This is the standard treatment for problems such as corneal abrasions, infections in the cornea, and conjunctivitis. Corticosteroids are sometimes used as well, for optic neuritis (nerve from back of eye to brain become infected), iritis (inflammation inside the eye), and more.

In some cases, a pain medication may be prescribed. With a sty, or blepharitis, a doctor will usually recommend that warm compresses be used. This will help to drain the clogged follicle or oil gland. If chemicals get into the eye, or some foreign substance, the eye will need to be flushed with water. A saline solution may also help. In the case of acute glaucoma, the more extreme form (the more common form is rarely painful), the pressure that builds up in the eye can build up suddenly.

Vision can be lost in just a few hours if a doctor is not seen immediately. Doctors will typically give eye drops and pills to reduce the pressure. If that does not work, surgery will be necessary. In most cases, eye pain will diminish over time. It rarely leads to permanent damage, but it can with some causes of eye pain. Glaucoma, for instance, can lead to total blindness if not treated.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Prevention of eye pain is very important. Care needs to be taken to protect the eyes from possible injury. This means avoiding chemicals and powerful cleaning agents and wearing eye protection when using. Goggles should be worn when working with power tools, and when flying objects are around.

Avoid giving children toys that could shoot objects into the eye, such as toy guns, or toys that might strike the eye such as swords or even balls. People who wear contact lenses need to be regular in cleaning the lenses thoroughly. Also, be sure to let the eyes rest at times and wear glasses instead. Avoid wearing contacts longer than the recommended time. Resting of the eyes is also recommended in many cases of eye pain.

This includes cases where there may be eye strain from looking at computer screens or TVs too long. Over-the-counter medications may also be taken to help relieve pain, especially in the case of migraines. If, after seeing a doctor, eye pain becomes worse, or if redness of the eye increases, be sure to go back to the doctor or ophthalmologist right away.

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