Pain in the eye (that is not due to injury) may be described as a burning, throbbing, aching, or stabbing sensation in or around the eye. It may also feel as if there is a foreign body in the eye.
Ophthalmalgia; Pain - eye
A feeling of tiredness in the eyes or some discomfort after a long period of work (eye strain) are generally minor problems and do not really qualify as eye pain. These problems may be due to an improper prescription for glasses or a muscle imbalance.
Pain in the eye, although not a common complaint, can be an important symptom that should be evaluated and treated if pain does not improve. It is important to try to describe the pain to your health care provider as much as possible.
A wide variety of disorders can cause pain in or around the eye. In general, if the pain is persistent, severe, or associated with decreased vision, seek medical attention immediately.
Some of the problems that can cause eye pain are:
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye) or any inflammation of the upper and lower lids
- Contact lens complications
- Eye problems (infection, irritation, or injury such as a corneal abrasion)
- Eye surgery
- Migraine headache
- Sinus problems
- Stye (hordeolum)
- Viral infections such as the flu
If the problem is eye strain, rest should relieve the discomfort. If you think your eye pain is due to wearing contact lenses, avoid wearing the lenses for a few days and see if the pain goes away. If the pain is severe, call your health care provider.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your health care provider if:
- Something got into your eye that caused the pain.
- The pain came after an eye injury.
- The eye pain is not due to a viral illness or eyestrain
- The pain is associated with medical problems such as a history of herpes infections or a new rash
- The pain is severe (call immediately) or it continues for more than 2 days
- You have an immune system deficiency
- You have had recent surgery
- You have pain, redness, swelling, discharge, or pressure in the eyes that does not go away -- particularly if it affects your vision
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your health care provider will check your vision, eye movements, and the back of the eye with an ophthalmoscope. If there is major concern, you should see an ophthalmologist (a doctor who specializes in eye problems).
To better understand the source of the pain, your health care provider may ask:
- Did something get into your eye?
- Are both eyes involved?
- Is the pain in the eye or around the eye?
- Does it feel like something is in your eye now?
- Does your eye burn or throb?
- Did the pain begin suddenly?
- Is the pain worse when you move your eyes?
- What other symptoms do you have?
The health care provider may perform the following diagnostic tests:
Wright JL, Wightman JM. Red and painful eye. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2009:chap 32.
Rubenstein JB, Virasch V. Conjunctivitis: Infectious and noninfectious. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.6.
Rubenstein JB, Virasch V. Allergic conjunctivitis. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.7.
Reviewed By: Linda Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.