Eye Pain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments

Written By: Susannah Lockett

Eye pain is defined as pain that occurs in, on, or around the eyes. It can have many causes, some serious and some not. However, all cases of eye pain should be evaluated immediately by an eye care professional. To protect your sight, assume that all cases of eye pain are potentially serious unless proven otherwise.

The degree of eye pain experienced isn’t a reliable indicator of the possible cause. Relatively minor conditions, such as a minor scratch on the cornea, may cause a great deal of discomfort. In contrast, serious eye conditions like retinal detachment, macular degeneration, and cataracts aren’t painful at all.

Your eye doctor will consider your pain level and other symptoms to help diagnose the problem and begin treatment.

Eye Pain

This may be described in several ways:

1. Burning or stinging

2. Aching

3. Sharp or stabbing

4. A feeling of something in the eye

Other common symptoms present with eye pain include redness, blurry vision, or sensitivity to light.

Pain on the Eye

This is pain along the front eye surface. This may include:

A foreign object stuck on the cornea could cause pain. This pain could be caused by metal shavings, sawdust, dirt, sand, tiny particles of stone, and other types of debris small enough to enter the eye.

When the cornea is injured, pain can be severe, even if the injury itself is relatively mild. Particles stuck in the eye may lead to serious eye infections if not treated promptly.

Eye doctors can remove most foreign eye objects easily. Reduce your risk by always wearing protective eye goggles whenever eye injury is possible.

Corneal Abrasions

This is the same as a scratch on the cornea. Most of these scratches are not serious and heal quickly on their own within a day or two. However, deeper abrasions may require medical treatment and can result in a corneal ulcer if treatment is delayed.

Dry Eyes

This can be highly uncomfortable and even painful. However, this kind of eye pain tends to develop gradually rather than suddenly. Severe dry eye can cause a corneal abrasion from the lack of lubrication over the cornea.

Dry eye treatment isn’t always simple, but you may find sufficient relief with over-the-counter lubricating eye drops or artificial tears. The more effective brands will typically be the ones with a thicker formula.

The price of these products can be quite high, but you may find that you get what you pay for when it comes to eye drops for dry eye. Cheaper products may not perform as well and may cost more, as you must use them more often.

Eye Pain: Other Causes

Pink eye

This is an inflammation of the eye’s conjunctiva, which is a thin membrane covering the white of the eye (the sclera) and lining the inside of the eyelids.

Eye infections

This includes fungal eye infections and those from the microbe Acanthamoeba. Acanthamoeba lives in freshwater and may be present in both tap water and bottled water. It’s normally harmless to drink, but serious eye infections may occur if multiple microbes become trapped in the eyes.

Never rinse your contact lenses in tap or bottled water. Use your approved lens solution instead. Remove lenses before swimming or showering to avoid trapping Acanthamoeba in your eyes and allowing them to flourish.

Contact lenses are a risk factor for Acanthamoeba infections.


This is an inflammatory condition of the iris, the colored part of the eye. Iritis is always serious and requires immediate medical attention. If left untreated, vision loss or glaucoma could result.

Iritis may be caused by other diseases, not of the eye. For example, the inflammatory joint disease called rheumatoid arthritis may manifest itself in the eye and cause iritis. In this case, treatment of the underlying condition should help reduce or eliminate the iritis.

Contact lenses

These can cause significant discomfort in some people if worn too long or not cared for properly. Other people simply can’t tolerate them. You’ll need to work with your eye care professional to solve problems or eliminate pain from wearing contact lenses.



This is an infection of the eye’s interior most commonly caused by penetrating eye injuries and sometimes occurs as a rare complication of eye surgery.

Endophthalmitis is typically bacterial. It’s very serious and threatens vision. Symptoms may include decreased vision, blurry vision, redness, and swollen eyelids.

Pain Behind the Eyes

Either sinus infections or migraines generally cause this type of pain. Sinus infections can cause a dull ache behind the nose and eyes. These infections can be chronic and hard to clear.

Migraines cause severe pain to occur behind one eye. There will usually be other symptoms, such as pain elsewhere in the head area (usually the temple area on the same side) and nausea with sensitivity to light, sound, and smell.

Migraines affect women more than men and are often linked to female hormones. Several effective treatments are available.

Pain Around the Eyes

Styes, digital eye strains, or blepharitis typically cause this type of pain.

A stye is a painful infection of the tiny oil glands located along the inner edge of the upper eyelid. It looks like a pimple and typically heals on its own in a week or so. Warm compresses may help speed healing and improve comfort.

Don’t underestimate the ability of digital eye strains to cause significant eye pain, especially when moving the eyes. This should not be confused with eye movement pain from a severe condition called optic neuritis.

Eye movement pain from digital eye strains will generally disappear after a sufficient period of rest. In contrast, optic neuritis can cause vision loss if not treated immediately.

If you’re experiencing loss of color vision and increased eye movement pain, especially with no cause for digital eye pain, seek immediate medical help.

How to Handle Eye Pain

Never ignore eye pain. If you have pain and any of the following also applies, it’s a red flag to seek medical help right away:

1. Recent eye surgery

2. Severe pain with sensitivity to light and blurry vision

3. You have an obvious injury

4. The pain appeared after doing some activity like grinding metal or sawing wood without protective goggles

5. Your eye is red, and discharge is present

6. Severe, sudden pain, especially with a history of glaucoma, may be a symptom of angle-closure glaucoma, a medical emergency. Angle-closure glaucoma can cause rapid vision loss.

Find a Top Eye Doctor Near You

We represent many top-rated eye doctors who practice across the country. We do personalized referrals to help you find the perfect eye doctor in your area.

We understand your needs and will match you up with a great eye doctor near you. We’ll set an appointment to make your next eye doctor visit as easy as possible. We’re here to help, and we look forward to helping you.

Published on: Apr 28, 2022
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