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eye pain

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Normal eye

Alternative Names 
ocular pain, pain in the eye

Eye pain refers to any discomfort in the area of the eye.

What is going on in the body? 
Eye pain is a fairly common complaint with many possible causes. One or both eyes may be affected. Eye pain should be taken seriously, especially if vision changes also occur.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? 
The doctor will ask questions about:
  • when the pain started
  • the exact location of the pain
  • the nature of the pain, such as sharp, throbbing, or severe
  • whether the pain started slowly or quickly
  • whether there has been any change in vision
  • whether the light bothers the eye
  • whether there is pain when the eye moves
  • whether or not there has been any injury to the eye or a possible foreign body in the eye
  • any other symptoms that may be present, such as fever, headache, weakness, or joint pain
  • what medical conditions the person has, if any
  • whether there is any family history of eye conditions
  • what medications, drugs, and herbal remedies the person takes
Other questions may also be asked, depending on the situation.

What are the causes and risks of the condition? 
There are many possible causes of eye pain. Common causes include:
  • eyestrain, which can occur when the eyes are overused, such as after reading for a long time. Strain can also occur when someone is always struggling to see because he or she needs glasses.
  • a foreign body in the eye, such as an eyelash, contact lens, or a small piece of metal
  • an eye or eyelid infection, such as conjunctivitis, which is an infection of the very front of the eyeball
  • injury, such as getting poked in the eye or chemical burns to the eye
  • closed-angle Glaucoma, which is due to increased pressure inside the eye
  • a sinus infection, called acute sinusitis, which can cause eye pain and headaches
  • inflammation inside the eye, such as in one of the inside layers of the eye called the uvea. This is known as uveitis.
  • headaches, especially migraine headaches
  • optic neuritis, an inflammation of the tip of the optic nerve
Other causes of eye pain are also possible.

What can be done to prevent the condition? 
Prevention is related to the cause of eye pain. Use of proper safety glasses during work or sports could prevent many cases of eye pain from foreign body or injury. Sports safety guidelines should be followed for children, adolescents, and adults. Frequent hand washing and not rubbing one's eyes can often prevent eye infections. Many cases cannot be prevented.

How is the condition diagnosed? 
Diagnosis of eye pain begins with the history and physical examination. This may be all that is needed in some cases. In other cases, examination of the eyes with special equipment or tests may be needed.

Blood tests may be done if inflammation of the eye, such as uveitis, is thought to be from another condition. If a headache is the suspected cause, an imaging test may be ordered. For instance, a cranial CT scan may be ordered if a brain tumour is suspected.

What are the long-term effects of the condition? 
Long-term effects depend on the cause of eye pain. For instance, conjunctivitis from a virus often goes away in a few days. glaucoma and chemical burns can cause blindness if not treated right away.

What are the risks to others? 
Eye pain itself is not contagious. However, if an infection such as conjunctivitis is the cause, the infection may be contagious.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
Oral analgesics or pain-relieving eye drops, can be given for pain as needed. If acute sinusitis is thought to be the cause, antibiotics are usually given. If migraine headaches are thought to be the cause, antimigraine medications such as sumatriptan may be given. If a foreign body is the cause, the foreign body is usually removed. If glaucoma is the cause, minor laser surgery of the eye is usually advised.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Side effects depend on the treatments used. For instance, aspirin can cause allergic reactions, stomach upset, and peptic ulcers. Laser eye surgery carries a small risk of infection, damage to the eye, and allergic reaction to the anaesthesia.

What happens after treatment for the condition? 
After a case of conjunctivitis or foreign body, a person usually can return to normal activities right away. If glaucoma is the cause, regular lifelong monitoring may be needed. Medications or repeat surgery may be needed for glaucoma if the pressure in the eye becomes high again.

How is the condition monitored? 
Monitoring may or may not be needed, depending on the cause of eye pain. For instance, eye pain from sinusitis often requires no monitoring after treatment. On the other hand, those with glaucoma often need regular monitoring. A person with glaucoma should have regular eye examinations to measure the pressure inside the eye. Regular vision tests may also be used to make sure no vision loss has occurred. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.

Author: Adam Brochert, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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