Eye Health Central

Eye Pain: Causes, Identification, Prevention, and Treatment

Eye Pain: Causes, Identification, Prevention, and Treatment

Eye Pain: Causes, Identification, Prevention, and Treatment

Eye pain is a very common issue that manifests itself in various forms like a dull ache, throbbing sensation, or sharp pain. Understanding the causes of eye pain and knowing when you should seek medical attention is crucial in maintaining good eye health. Without further ado let us delve into the causes of ocular and orbital pain, discuss when eye pain is considered an emergency, explore prevention methods, and outline any potential treatments. 

Causes of Eye Pain

Eye pain can be broadly categorised into two types: ocular pain and orbital pain. Both of these have different causes, and identifying the source of your discomfort is key in order to give you the proper treatment you may require.

What Is Ocular Pain and What Causes it?

Ocular pain refers to pain felt on the eye's surface, which may be caused by several factors including the following:

Dry eyes: A lack of adequate tear production or poor tear quality can lead to dry eyes, which ultimately can cause you discomfort, itching, and irritation.
Conjunctivitis: Also known as pink eye, conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the thin membrane covering the white of the eye) which often results in redness, discharge, and pain.
• Corneal abrasion: Any scratch or damage to your cornea, the clear front surface of the eye can cause significant discomfort and sensitivity to light.
Contact lens complications: Improper use of contact lenses, such as wearing them for extended periods or not cleaning them properly can lead to your eye being irritated and painful.
Eye infections: Bacterial, viral or even fungal infections can cause inflammation, redness, and pain in the eye.

What is Orbital Pain and What Causes it?

Orbital pain refers to a deep, aching pain felt behind or around your eye and can be caused by various factors including the following:

Sinusitis: Inflammation or infection of the sinuses can cause pressure and pain behind your eyes.
Migraines and headaches: Migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches which can be really uncomfortable and painful can all cause pain around the eye area.
Optic neuritis: Inflammation of the optic nerve can lead to pain, usually worsened by eye movement, and may in fact be accompanied by some sort of vision loss.
Glaucoma: Increased pressure within the eye, commonly due to glaucoma, can cause orbital pain and potentially lead to vision loss if you leave it untreated.
Orbital cellulitis: This is a severe infection involving the tissues surrounding the eye which can then result in intense pain, redness, and/or swelling.

When is Eye Pain an Emergency?

In some cases, your eye pain may indicate a severe issue requiring urgent and immediate medical attention. Seek emergency care if you experience any of the following:

• Sudden, severe eye pain
• Vision loss or sudden changes in vision
• Intense redness, discharge or swelling
• Trauma or injury to the eye
• Severe headache, fever or a stiff neck accompanied by eye pain

How Can You Prevent Eye Pain?

Preventing eye pain involves adopting healthy habits and prioritising your eye care. Here are some tips:

• Maintain good hygiene: You should always wash your hands regularly, especially before touching your eyes or handling contact lenses.
• Wear protective eyewear: Use safety goggles or glasses to protect your eyes from injury during activities like sports or any DIY projects you may want to start.
• Take breaks from screens: Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every twenty minutes, look at something twenty feet away for twenty seconds to reduce eye strain and discomfort.
• Manage allergies: If you have seasonal allergies you should take antihistamines or use eye drops to reduce itchiness and irritation.
• Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day and use artificial tears to maintain a healthy tear film and alleviate your eyes whenever they are dry.
• Regular eye exams: Schedule routine eye exams to identify and immediately address potential issues before they then become problematic.

Eye Pain Treatment

The appropriate treatment for your eye pain is dependent on the underlying cause. Here are some common treatments that can help with various eye pain causes:

• Dry eyes: Over-the-counter artificial tears, lubricating eye drops or prescription eye drops can help relieve dry eye discomfort. In some cases, your eye care professional might recommend punctal plugs to retain moisture. However, please be aware that a study performed in 2017 reached the conclusion that punctal plugs do not conclusively improve dry eye symptoms and that there was no finding to suggest that they are better than oral treatment or eye drops.
• Conjunctivitis: Depending on the cause (if it is bacterial, viral, or allergic), your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops, antiviral medication or even allergy medication to alleviate your symptoms.
• Corneal abrasion: Minor corneal abrasions usually heal on their own within a few days but your doctor might recommend lubricating eye drops or antibiotic ointment to prevent any possible infection.
• Contact lens complications: Taking a break from contact lenses, using a different lens solution or switching to a different type of lens may alleviate the pain that you are experiencing. Consult your eye care professional for more of a personalised approach.
• Eye infections: Depending on the infection's nature, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic, antiviral, antifungal eye drops or oral medication to treat your infection.
• Sinusitis: Over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and saline nasal sprays can help relieve sinus-caused eye pain. However, if sinusitis is caused by a bacterial infection, then your doctor may actually prescribe you antibiotics.
• Migraines and headaches: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Ibuprofen, Paracetamol or Aspirin can help reduce eye pain caused by headaches. If you experience migraines on a regular basis, consult your doctor for prescription medications or preventive treatments.
• Optic neuritis: Treatment typically involves corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Your doctor will determine any appropriate medication and dosage you may need.
• Glaucoma: Prescription eye drops, oral medications or in more severe cases surgical procedures may be necessary to reduce your eye pressure and relieve pain.
• Orbital cellulitis: This severe infection requires immediate medical attention and is typically treated with intravenous antibiotics and, in some extreme cases, surgery to drain the infection out.


Eye pain can have various causes, from minor issues like dry eyes to more severe conditions like orbital cellulitis. Understanding the potential causes, identifying when your eye pain is an emergency, and taking preventative measures can help you maintain good eye health. If you experience persistent or severe eye pain, always consult your eye care professional for proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment. By staying proactive about it and prioritising eye care, you can protect your vision and overall eye health. 

Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 5 Apr 2023, Last modified: 20 May 2024