By Eyecare NG

Overview   |  Causes   |   What to do 


The eyes are well supplied with nerves and so are very sensitive to pain. Many eye conditions have pain as a symptom. The cornea, for instance, has the highest supply of sensory nerves and so corneal problems such as abrasions or ulcers are usually very painful.

Eye pain could be experienced or described by people in various ways. It could be a sharp stabbing sensation, a burning sensation or a dull or throbbing ache.

It is important to note that the intensity of eye pain is not an indication of the severity of the eye condition causing it; as there are many vision-threatening conditions that do not cause eye pain.

So, if you have eye pain that gets worse, does not resolve within 24 hours or is accompanied by vision loss, see your eye doctor.

Causes of eye pain

  • Eye injury: Injuries to the eye cause pain. The nature of the pain depends on the cause and depth of the injury as well as the part of the eye that is affected. Injuries that affect the cornea are more painful than those that affect just the eyelids.
  • Corneal inflammation, abrasion and ulcer: When the cornea is inflamed, abraded or has an ulcer, the nerve endings are exposed and this causes pain. The pain is usually very severe. In addition to pain, corneal abrasion and ulcer usually cause blurry vision, light sensitivity and red eye.
  • Foreign body in the eye: When materials foreign to the eye get into it, the feeling is discomforting, irritating and sometimes painful.
  • Refractive errors: People who strain to see because of the presence of some uncorrected refractive errors such as astigmatism, hyperopia and presbyopia usually complain of brow ache, eye pain and sometimes headaches. The aches and pains occur because ocular muscles get fatigued when they are strained. In this case, correction of refractive errors will relieve the eye pain and accompanying headache.
  • Iritis: This is the Inflammation of the coloured part of the eye known as iris. Iritis causes severe pains along with light sensitivity, redness and blurry vision. Iritis may be caused by trauma, surgery or systemic conditions such as autoimmune disease. It may sometimes occur without any identifiable cause. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids are used to treat iritis.
  • Optic neuritis: This is the inflammation of the optic nerve. In optic neuritis, pain is located behind the eye and usually gets worse on the movement of the eyeball. The condition is associated with multiple sclerosis and has sudden, transient or complete loss of vision as symptoms. When it is identified early and given proper treatment, complete loss of vision can be prevented.
  • Endophthalmitis: This is the inflammation of the internal structures of the eyes. Though a rare condition, it is usually caused by bacteria and occurs as a complication of invasive surgeries like cataract surgery. Endophthalmitis is very painful and vision-threatening. If you develop a red, painful eye with decreasing vision after an eye surgery, visit your eye surgeon immediately for proper investigations.
  • Sinus related eye pains: Inflammation of the sinus (sinusitis) sometimes cause eye pain especially while bending forward.
  • Dry eye syndrome: When your eyes dry out because of infrequent blinking or poor tear quality or quantity; the eyes become irritated and painful. The pain is described by many victims as burning sensation. Most cases of dry eyes are treated with lubricating drops.
  • Prolonged computer use: Prolonged use of computers and other electronic devices can cause eye strain especially in the presence of uncorrected refractive errors. The glare from the electronic devices can be a source of discomfort for many users. Always take breaks when using the computer. Correct all refractive errors and make use of computer glasses that cut down harmful blue rays and reduce glare.
  • Stye: This is a localized swelling on the eyelid caused by blocked meibomian gland ducts. Styes are usually painful especially when touched. Warm compresses may help it resolve faster.
  • Angle-closure glaucoma: Angle-closure glaucoma causes pains and headache due to the sudden increase in intraocular pressure that occurs when the filtration angle of the eye becomes narrow or gets blocked. Other symptoms include, blurry vision, seeing rainbow-like colours around light, red eyes and stone hard eyeballs. Angle-closure glaucoma is an ocular emergency and often requires surgical intervention.

What to do when you have eye pain

There are various causes of eye pain and some of them are vision threatening.

Seek the help of an eye doctor immediately if you have eye pain under the following conditions:

  • Sudden pain, accompanied by blurry vision, discharges and light sensitivity.
  • Pain due to penetrating injury.
  • Pain due to chemical burns.

If your eye pain is due to a foreign material, do not rub the eye. Rather, flush the eye with clean running water.  If water does not remove the foreign material, cover the eye with a bandage to reduce eye movement and seek the help of your eye doctor immediately.