Eye Pain

Eye pain of any kind is not normal, and it can result from several different sources. By examining the symptoms, your healthcare provider will help determine the cause and get you treatment.

This article will look at eye pain symptoms, causes, treatments, and when you should see a provider to preserve your vision.

Man feels eye pain

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Symptoms of Eye Pain

Symptoms of eye pain can vary from a mild annoyance to severe discomfort. These sensations may be felt anywhere in the eye. Symptoms include:

  • A burning sensation
  • Aching around the eye
  • A stabbing feeling
  • A throbbing sensation

Causes of Eye Pain

Eye pain can result from several conditions, including:

  • Pink eye: Infection or inflammation of the membrane covering the white of the eye
  • Corneal abrasion: Scratches on the clear covering of the eye
  • Dry eyes: Making too few or poor-quality tears to keep the eye moist

An infection or inflammation such as pink eye (conjunctivitis) is not only painful, but it can cause your eyelid to swell and the inside to become red. You also see redness of the white part of the eye, known as the conjunctiva.

Other symptoms of pink eye include itchiness, burning, wateriness, mucus discharge, and crustiness along the lashes. You may also have light sensitivity, a sensation of having a foreign body in the eye, and visual blurriness.

A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the clear dome of tissue at the front of the eye known as the cornea. Along with pain, you may experience watery eyes and slightly blurred vision. You may also find yourself with light sensitivity and a foreign body sensation.

Dry eyes can cause pain and symptoms such as light sensitivity, scratchiness, redness, and blurriness.

How to Treat Eye Pain

Whenever you have significant eye pain, contact an eye doctor, such as an ophthalmologist, immediately.

If you have mild irritation (such as a slight pink eye infection or dry eye), you may be able to treat it with over-the-counter (OTC) measures initially. These include the following:

In some cases, however, eye pain is linked to conditions that are more serious, including:

  • Keratitis: Also known as a corneal ulcer, keratitis is when the clear cornea that shields the rest of the eye becomes inflamed. Other symptoms are foreign body sensation, light sensitivity, red eye, a watery eye, blurred vision, and decreased vision. This is the most common cause of corneal blindness, and treatment must be taken seriously.
  • Acute angle-closure glaucoma: This is a sudden blockage of the eye's drainage system. It causes fluid to build up and pressure to rise. It can come on without warning. Other hallmarks of this condition that can threaten your sight include brow pain, headache, seeing colorful rings around lights, nausea, vomiting, and reduced vision.
  • Scleritis: Involving the white sclera of the eye, scleritis is usually connected to autoimmune conditions in which the immune system attacks its own cells. Scleritis can cause intense pain and tenderness around the eye, which can also sometimes be felt in the jaw and on that side of the face. Other symptoms include blurred vision, tearing, severe light sensitivity, and redness and swelling of the sclera.
  • Optic neuritis: The optic nerve becomes inflamed and the eye is often painful, particularly when moving it. The major symptom is reduced vision. Your vision may be blurry and you may have trouble distinguishing colors. The pupil may react abnormally to light, causing loss of vision in that eye.
  • Uveitis: In uveitis, the pain is associated with the middle part of the eye, between the white sclera and the light-sensitive retina. Symptoms of uveitis can include light sensitivity, redness, blurriness, and noticing floaters (strands of jelly inside the eye that clump together and cast shadows on the retina).

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Eye Pain

In people who are pregnant and have eye pain, the condition of preeclampsia should be considered. In preeclampsia, blood pressure rises steeply and can lead to a throbbing headache. Preeclampsia usually occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy and also involves protein in the urine.

Preeclampsia can be accompanied by visual changes such as seeing dark spots or flashing lights, light sensitivity, blurry vision and temporary loss of vision. Other symptoms include swelling of the hands and face, difficulty breathing, feeling light-headed, not urinating much, nausea, and vomiting.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Eye Pain?

If you have unexplained eye pain, your ophthalmologist will likely take a complete history and look at your other symptoms. They also will evaluate your vision for any signs of loss and will recommend some of the following tests:

  • Gonioscopy may be performed if something like narrow-angle glaucoma is suspected, This allows the ophthalmologist to see if the drainage angle of the eye is open or closed.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain may be done to look for lesions that could indicate a condition like optic neuritis.
  • Tonometry may be used to evaluate the pressure inside your eye to see if it is too high and may be the source of your pain.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Any eye pain that doesn't improve as expected, even from something relatively minor such as a stye (infected sore on the eyelid or lash line), should be promptly examined by an ophthalmologist.

Any kind of eye injury, whether it's blunt trauma or a penetrating wound, needs to be taken seriously. You should contact an ophthalmologist or visit the emergency room for any of the following:

  • Something has scratched the eyeball or penetrated it.
  • You have a painful red eye.
  • In addition to eye pain, you have nausea or a headache, which may be linked to a stroke or glaucoma.
  • You experience doubling or blurring of your vision, or other changes.
  • The eye is bleeding uncontrollably.
  • A chemical has gotten into your eye.

Summary

Eye pain can be caused by any number of conditions. While uncomfortable, many times it will go away on its own. But even for what seems to be a minor issue, it's important to have a healthcare provider examine your eye if the pain does not resolve. Serious sources of eye pain can include keratitis, acute angle-closure glaucoma, scleritis, optic neuritis, and uveitis. Any unexplained eye pain should be diagnosed and treated immediately.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes eye pain?

    Eye pain can be caused by several different conditions, from infection such as pink eye to diseases such as narrow-angle glaucoma or optic neuritis. Even if you think you know the cause, if the pain doesn't improve or if you notice changes in vision, contact an ophthalmologist

  • Can glaucoma cause eye pain?

    Many times glaucoma has no symptoms. However, with narrow-angle glaucoma, in which the drainage in the front of the eye becomes blocked, symptoms such as severe eye pain, rings around lights, and even nausea can occur.

  • Is eye pain a sign of COVID-19?

    Sometimes. Sore eyes are one of the most common ocular (related to the eye) symptoms of COVID-19. This may at times manifest as conjunctivitis (pink eye) and be uncomfortable.

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15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Eye Institute. Pink eye.

  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is a corneal abrasion?

  4. National Eye Institute. Dry eye.

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  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Keratitis.

  7. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Angle-closure glaucoma.

  8. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Scleritis causes and symptoms.

  9. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Optic neuritis.

  10. National Eye Institute. Uveitis.

  11. Mount Sinai. Preeclampsia.

  12. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Angle-closure glaucoma.

  13. Kaiser Permanente. Tonometry.

  14. Penn Medicine. Eye emergencies.

  15. BMJ Open Ophthalmology. Sore eyes as the most significant ocular symptom experienced by people with Covid-19: a comparison between pre-Covid-19 and during Covid-19 states.