Eye Pain: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

A woman with a pain in her eye


One of the most annoying and uncomfortable feelings is a pain, particularly in the eye area. This is because it may cause some degree of discomfort to the patient and it may disrupt daily activities.

Eye pain can happen on the eye surface or inside the deeper structures of the eyes. On the other hand, when the eye pain is severe and accompanied by vision loss or blurred vision, it may be a sign of a severe health problem.

Eye pain on the surface is usually characterized by sensations of itching, shooting pain or burning. On the other hand, when the pain is from the inside of the eyes, it may be described as aching or throbbing.

The pain is also described as sharp, gritty and a feeling like something is in the eye.
In some cases, they may feel some pressure. Since there are many possible causes, eye pain is not always treated immediately and people do not seek medical attention thinking it’s just something petty.

Eye pain is also dubbed as ophthalmalgia and it can fall into two categories – ocular and orbital. Ocular pain happens on the surface of the eye and orbital pain occurs inside the eye or the surrounding parts. Though eye pain is common, it rarely signals the presence of a serious illness. But in some cases, it could hint a possible eye problem.


Eye pain can be described as the feeling of pain and discomfort in and around the eyes. Some people describe the condition as the feeling as if something is inside the eyes.
Also, eye pain sufferers complain about a sharp, gritty, shooting or burning pain in the eyes. On the other hand, orbital pain is described as a throbbing pain.

Depending on the underlying cause of eye pain, additional symptoms may include:

  • Red and bloodshot eyes
  • Eye discharge
  • Itchy eyes
  • A migraine or a headache
  • Burning sensation
  • Vision problems
  • Feeling that a foreign body is in the eye
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)

When is it considered an emergency?

In some cases, eye pain can be a cause for concern and the patient should immediately seek medical attention. The warning signs include:

  • Proptosis or building of the eye
  • Vomiting
  • Halos around lights
  • Reduced visual acuity or sharpness of vision
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue or muscle pains
  • Inability to move the eye in all directions


Eye pain is fairly common and because of that, several factors have been associated with the emergence of eye pain, including:

Ocular pain causes

Foreign object – Not surprisingly, the most common cause of eye pain is the presence of a foreign body. The common objects that could embed on the surface of the cornea are inorganic grit such as tiny stones and sand, sawdust, organic materials and metal shavings. Other objects that can become trapped in the eye are makeup powder, a piece of dirt or eyelash.

Pink eye or conjunctivitisPink eye is the inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the thin tissue that lines the surface of the eyes. It can become infected and swollen. This is usually caused by an infection, an allergic reaction, and a chemical reaction.

Irritation from contact lens – People who wear contact lenses should always disinfect and clean them. This is because the dirt in the contact lenses could cause irritation in the eye.

Corneal abrasion – The cornea is the clear surface that protects and covers the eye. Since it is the first line of defense of the eyes, it is prone to injuries. The common injury is a corneal abrasion. This condition is often described as if something is in the eye.

BlepharitisThis condition happens when the oil glands become inflamed, swollen and infected with disease-causing pathogens.

Sty – A sty emerges when the blepharitis infection produces a nodule or bump on the eyelid. This is very painful and very sensitive to touch.

Injury – Eye pain can be caused by injury to the eye. Chemical burns can cause pain and these are usually the result of exposure to certain harsh chemicals and irritants. Injury can also be caused by exposure to intense light sources like tanning booths and the sun.

Orbital eye pain

Glaucoma – Glaucoma is a serious eye condition wherein the optic nerve becomes damaged. This condition usually arises from the increased pressure inside the eyes. This is serious and could lead to permanent blindness.

Sinusitis – Sinusitis is the infection of the sinuses that leads to the build-up of pressure behind the eyes. This could also lead to pain in the eyes.

Optic neuritis – Optic neuritis is a condition wherein eye pain can be accompanied by vision loss. This condition means that the optic nerve is inflamed. This is usually caused by an infection or an autoimmune disease.

A migraineA migraine may also affect the eyes and cause pain. Eye pain is a common side effect of this type of a headache.

Iritis – Iritis is rare but the inflammation of the iris can cause some degree of pain.

Injury – Some injuries, like penetrating injuries to the eye may cause severe pain.

The other causes of eye pain include:

  • An allergic reaction
  • Inflammation of the eyelid
  • Chalazion or a cyst in the eyelid
  • Blocked tear duct
  • Corneal abrasion
  • Contact lens problem
  • Ectropion
  • Entropion
  • Dry eyes


The need for diagnostic tests would depend on the doctor’s findings after the medical history is acquired and the physical examination is finished. Testing is not usually needed but if the doctor suspects a medical condition that needs immediate attention, further tests are recommended.

The doctor may also refer the patient to an ophthalmologist or a doctor that specializes in the treatment of eye problems. If the condition is suspected to be a tumor or cyst in the eye, imaging tests are requested, which include CT scan and MRI.

The other instruments that can be used by the eye doctor include:

Ophthalmoscope – A device used to visualize the eye and see the back of the eye. This could also help the doctor assess the blood vessels and optic disc.

Tonometer – This device will measure the pressure inside the eyes.

Slit lamp – This device is used to see the eye’s surface to assess for corneal abrasions and lesions.

Fluorescein – Fluorescein is a dye that is used to test for ulcerations, abrasions, and other corneal problems.


Just like in diagnosis, eye pain can be caused by a wide array of conditions. Treating the underlying cause is the only way to resolve the pain. The goal of treating eye pain is to address the cause, provide pain relief and manage the other symptoms.

The common treatments include:

Home care – One way to treat many of the eye problems that may cause pain is allowing the eyes to rest. For instance, if the patient works in front of the computer for long hours, he should take a rest.

Warm compress – Warm compress is recommended for people with a sty or blepharitis to keep the oil gland and hair follicle unclogged.

Glasses – Wearing glasses instead of the contact lens when the eyes are tied is important to help provide rest to the cornea.

Flushing – If the cause of the eye pain is a foreign body stuck inside, the doctor can conduct flushing of the eyes with water or saline solution to remove the irritant.

Anti-allergy drugs – Antihistamines are recommended to reduce allergy and inflammation, which could eventually lead to pain relief.

Antibiotics – If the cause of eye pain is a bacterial infection, using antibiotics is important.

Corticosteroids – The use of corticosteroids will help reduce the inflammation and eventually, provide pain relief.

Eye drops – People with glaucoma may be prescribed with eye drops to reduce the pressure inside the eyes and prevent blindness.

Pain relievers – For the type of pain that is intolerable, pain relievers can be prescribed. However, it is important to make sure that the pain relievers are taken with meals.

Surgery – In some cases, surgery is vital to repair the damage done by chemical burns or foreign bodies trapped inside the eyes. In individuals with glaucoma, a laser treatment is needed to improve the drainage in the eyes.

Just like any other eye problem, prevention is still better than cure. Here are ways to possibly prevent any eye problem that can cause pain.

  • Prevent the many causes of eye pain such as abrasions and burns. This can be done by wearing protective goggles or glasses when doing exercise, working with wood, walking in dusty environments and playing sports.
  • Clean the contact lens regularly and every after use. Wear the glasses if the eyes are tired or you need time for them to rest. Do not wear contact lenses more than recommended and never sleep with them on. If the eyes feel dry, you can use artificial tears.
  • Store harmful chemicals and household cleaning items properly. Also, use goggles to prevent the chemicals splashing into the eyes.
  • Do not give your kids toys that could lead to eye injuries. Choose safe toys as recommended by pediatricians.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle with a diet rich in vitamin A, for a clearer vision.