Types and Causes of Eye Pain

Close-up of a woman suffering from a headache
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Eye pain can be both distracting and debilitating. The cause of eye pain can sometimes be difficult to diagnose. If eye pain is due to an injury, then the cause is pretty obvious. However, if you wake up in the morning with eye pain, it can be quite disturbing. What is important is to determine if the pain has onset suddenly or gradually gotten worse. Is the pain very sharp or like a dull ache? Does the pain feel like it is coming from the surface, around the eye, behind the eye or from the eyelid?

Here are a few common causes of eye pain.

Less severe causes of eye pain

StyeA stye, or hordeolum, usually starts out as a pretty sore eyelid that is tender to the touch. It can be quite painful when it begins. Although the appearance of a stye can be unsightly at times, it is usually harmless. A stye is a small bump on the outside or inside of the eyelid. A stye develops from an eyelash follicle or an eyelid oil gland that becomes clogged from excess oil, debris or bacteria. Styes can be a complication of but also seem to be brought on by stress.

Corneal abrasion - A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the surface of the cornea, the clear dome-like structure on the front part of the eye. Usually, an injury causes a corneal abrasion, removing the top layer of the cornea. However, if the injury is more severe and damages the second layer of the cornea, a recurrent corneal erosion occurs. The abrasion can heal but some time later, months or even years, patients often wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning with intense eye pain.

The injury reopens and has a difficult time healing.

Foreign body - Sometimes a piece of dust, sand or debris can fly into the eye. Most times our blinking mechanism and tears do a good job of flushing out the debris, but sometimes the foreign body can get lodged underneath the eyelid. Every time you blink, the debris can scratch your cornea, repeatedly.

Even a piece of glitter can become lodged under the eyelid or on the cornea and create severe eye pain.

Dry eye - Having dry eyes can create eye pain. The cornea is filled with nerves that give the eye and brain feedback. When the surface of the eye dries out enough, the cornea can develop sore areas called keratitis. This can often feel like a very brief, sharp pain in the eye. It often comes and goes but can also be constant.  

Headache and sinus pain - Headaches and sinus problems are a very common cause of pain or pressure behind the eye. Most of us have experienced this and usually the condition if fairly benign and resolves after a headache or sinus problem are treated. However, sinus infections have been known to be so severe that the infection invades the surrounding tissue outside of the sinus cavity. As a result, sinus infections should not be ignored.

More severe causes of eye pain

Acute angle closure glaucoma - Most cases of glaucoma create no symptoms at all. However, a more rare type of glaucoma called acute angle closure glaucoma often comes on suddenly and creates intense eye pain.

Patients often complain of eye redness and often see halos and rainbows around lights due to swelling. In this type of glaucoma, the drain pipe of the eye becomes closed and fluid that fills the eye cannot drain properly. Pressure builds up in the eye rapidly and causes eye pain and swelling. This condition requires immediate treatment or loss of vision can occur.

Optic neuritis - Optic neuritis is an inflammation of the optic nerve. Although optic neuritis can occur from several causes, it has been linked to multiple sclerosis. Interestingly, patients complain of a decrease in vision but also pain upon eye movement. Pain occurs with eye movement because the optic nerve is like a cable that connects the eye to the brain. As the eye moves back and forth, the nerve gets moved back and forth and when inflamed, pain can occur.

Uveitis - Uveitis is an inflammation of the anterior chamber, the front fluid filled compartment at the front part of the eye. Uveitis most often occurs in one eye and causes acute eye pain. Also, patients complain of intense light sensitivity. Uveitis can be successfully treated with steroids in most cases. However, if uveitis lingers for a long period of time, other complications can occur such as glaucoma.

What you should know

As you can see, eye pain can come from a variety of sources. Seek an eye doctor's advice if pain persists. Even if after hours or on the weekend, do not be bashful about calling your doctor immediately. Your condition could be severe and require immediate treatment.

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