Pain behind the eye can result from eyestrain, migraine, dental problems, glaucoma, giant cell arteritis, and other causes. Treatment will depend on the cause, but applying cool or warm compresses may help.
Pain behind the eye is a nonspecific symptom as it can be associated with many different health conditions.
Common types of pain behind the eye vary from dull aches to sharp and intense pains. Some people experience a sharp pain behind while others have a deeper pain inside the head. Symptoms can also include tearing, sensitivity to light, redness, vision changes, or pain during eye movement.
This article examines the possible causes of pain behind the eye, treatments, alternative therapies, and when to consult a doctor if the pain persists.
Reviewing the possible causes for pain behind the eye may provide people with a better sense of the signs of discomfort and when to seek medical help.
There are as many as 300 types of headaches, including those that may cause pain behind the eye. The specific causes are known for only about 10% of headaches. Where a person feels pain does not necessarily correspond to what is causing it.
Many different health issues can cause pain behind the eye, including the following:
Straining the eyes can leave them feeling dry, tired, and blurry.
Research has shown that if a person stares at something for an extended time, they tend to blink less, so eyes become less moist. People should keep screens at a comfortable distance and take breaks from digital devices to reduce eyestrain.
The following may put people at risk of eyestrain:
- spending long hours staring at a screen
- being exposed to glare
- straining eyes in poor lighting
- driving long distances
- struggling to get by without glasses or an updated prescription when needed
- other underlying vision problems
Giving the eyes a chance to rest and recover can do a lot to relieve pain behind the eye due to eye strain. People can use the 20-20-20 rule, which involves looking away to a distance of at least 20 feet for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.
People may also try over-the-counter (OTC) artificial tears to help relieve dry, tired eyes.
Migraine is a common condition related to the brain that can often cause headaches along with extreme pain behind the eye. Migraine affects roughly 2 in 10 people, occurs in females more than males, and tends to run families.
Migraine symptoms may also include visual disturbances, such as:
These disturbances may occur on only one side of the head and worsen with movement, exposure to sound, light, or strong smells.
However, people with migraine often need prescription medications. These medications balance the chemical changes leading to a migraine and include:
If migraine attacks are severe or happen frequently, a doctor may recommend taking daily medication like beta-blockers.
The best remedy to prevent migraine is to avoid triggers where possible. Common triggers include:
- certain foods, like aged cheeses and red wine
- food additives and artificial sweeteners
- hormonal imbalances, for example, during pregnancy or menstruation
- emotional stress or anxiety
- environmental factors, including smells, temperatures, sounds, or lights
- irregular sleep patterns
- poor posture
- certain medications, including sleeping pills or hormonal treatments
Doctors often misdiagnose sinus infection as migraine due to the overlap in symptoms and triggers such as weather changes. A person must consult a medical professional to determine the cause of any headache.
Thick, discolored nasal discharge is a common symptom of a viral or bacterial infection in the sinuses.
Other symptoms may include:
Doctors may prescribe antibiotics to treat this type of infection if it is bacterial.
In some cases, doctors will use a CT scan to determine whether sinus disease or migraine is causing the pain.
Septic cavernous sinus thrombosis can occur due to the following conditions:
Symptoms may include:
- a severe, sudden headache
- pain or swelling around the eyes
- vision changes
- high fever
Doctors tend to treat this condition with antibiotics and antimicrobial therapies, typically for
Other experts recommend anticoagulants to thin blood and therefore prevent further blood clots. Doctors typically prescribe these for several weeks to several months.
Doctors consider this type of treatment effective in slowing down the progression of blood cots and reducing the mortality rate. However, there is also some controversy surrounding anticoagulants as they can result in hemorrhage or bleeding.
Another option that doctors often prescribe is corticosteroids, as there is a potential benefit of reducing inflammation. Doctors do not recommend surgical interventions for the cavernous sinuses themselves.
In cases where the blood clot is
Three nerve branches run through the jaw and eye areas, meaning that issues with the jaw could potentially lead to pain behind and around the eye.
Dental and bite problems that can cause pain behind the eye include tooth infections and temporomandibular (TMJ) disorder, which is dysfunction in the jaw joint.
If TMJ causes orbital eye pain, people may also experience:
- eye strain
- watery eyes
- sensitivity to light
If doctors have ruled out other medical conditions causing pain behind the eye, they may recommend consulting an orthodontist to check jaw joints and bite.
Realigning the bite with custom-made aligners for the teeth, through orthodontic treatment, can reduce the stress put on the muscles and joints in the head and neck. This treatment may alleviate nerve pain and pain behind the eye.
The two types of glaucoma are primary open-angle and angle-closure.
Risk factors include a family history of the condition and other eye-related injuries or surgeries.
Primary open-angle glaucoma is where eye fluid does not drain correctly, causing damage to the optic nerve. However, this type of glaucoma is painless.
Angle-closure glaucoma occurs when a person’s iris blocks the drainage angle where eye fluid leaves the eye. When this is blocked, pressure builds up quickly, and immediate medical attention is needed to protect the vision.
- sudden, severe eye pain
- blurry vision
- seeing halos around lights
Medical treatment for angle-closure glaucoma may include eye drops or laser surgery.
A person must use daily eye drops to reduce eye pressure. While this treatment will help maintain the vision, there will be several side effects associated with this medication, including:
- a stinging sensation
- red eyes or inflamed skin around the eyes
- blurred vision
- eyelash growth
- breathing changes
- changes in energy levels
- changes in pulse and heartbeat
The type of surgery used for angle-closure glaucoma is an iridotomy. An ophthalmologist will create a hole in the iris using a laser to help eye fluid flow through the drainage angle.
This condition is a type of vasculitis, a group of rare diseases causing inflammation of the blood vessels. Giant cell arteritis (GCA), which is also referred to temporal arteritis, may cause the arteries in the scalp, head, and temples to swell.
Symptoms of GCA include:
Permanent loss of vision can occur in some cases, but appropriate treatment can prevent this.
GCA requires immediate medical treatment to reduce the risk of loss of vision. The treatment usually involves high doses of corticosteroids, typically 40–60 milligrams (mg) per day of prednisone for a month.
In most cases, doctors reduce the dose to about 5–10 mg per day for a few months or up to a year. GCA rarely returns after treatment.
In 2017, doctors approved tocilizumab (Actemra) as an effective treatment for GCA as more people are in remission. Medical professionals can administer this drug intravenously on a monthly basis, or patients can self-administer an injection every 1–2 weeks.
The following complementary practices may help people find relief for headaches, which could include pain behind the eye:
There are also some common home remedies to prevent or help relieve pain behind the eye, including:
- applying cold or warm compresses
- staying well-hydrated, such as through drinking herbal teas
- exercising regularly
- getting plenty of rest
- limiting alcohol and caffeine use
- relaxing muscles in a hot bath or shower
- avoiding noisy and bright environments
- reducing screen time
- using OTC pain relievers
- reducing stress where appropriate
- magnesium supplements, particularly in the case of migraine attacks
While some conditions improve with home care and OTC medications, other symptoms require prompt medical attention.
Signs that it is time to see a doctor include pain that:
The outlook for pain behind the eye depends on the cause. Doctors can use several treatments to treat the cause of the pain.
Specific causes of pain behind the eye, such as migraine, may be more likely if people have a family history of the condition. It is important to have frequent check-ups with medical professionals to discuss the risk and the signs to look out for.
Other causes, such as eye strain, may resolve with home remedies, including adequate rest and drinking enough water. Doctors may also recommend nonprescription drugs, such as ibuprofen. Alternative therapies may improve the outlook for certain eye conditions.
Some causes of eye pain could require a course of prescription drugs, including steroids, and in some cases, medical treatment and long-term care.
The location of the eye pain may not be related to the cause. A person should keep track of triggers and other symptoms that accompany the pain. This information will help a doctor make an informed diagnosis and provide suitable recommendations for treatment.