Sharp eye pain can stem from many causes. Without treatment, some of these issues can lead to vision loss and other serious complications.
Intense or sharp pain often results from debris entering the eye.
This type of pain can also occur with migraine or cluster headaches. In some cases, inflammation or fluid buildup in the eye can also lead to severe pain, as well as tissue damage and vision problems.
In this article, we discuss seven causes of sharp eye pain and when to see a doctor.
1. Debris in the eye
Many people experience sharp pain when debris, such as dirt or dust, becomes lodged in an eye.
The pain usually subsides once a person flushes the debris from their eye. They can do this by splashing water or saline solution on the affected eye.
If a person continues to experience eye pain, they may have a corneal abrasion, which is a small scratch on the eye. In this case, it is best to contact an optometrist or ophthalmologist for further evaluation.
Uveitis is inflammation of the eye’s middle layer — the uvea.
This inflammation can also affect the eye’s lens, retina, optic nerve, and vitreous fluid. It can occur in one or both eyes.
Uveitis can cause the following symptoms:
- eye pain and redness
- dark spots in the vision
- blurred vision
- sensitivity to light
Uveitis can damage tissue in the eye, which may result in reduced vision or vision loss.
Medical professionals who specialize in eye health can use chart exams and evaluate the pressure inside the affected eye to diagnose uveitis. They may also dilate the pupil to inspect the back of the eye.
Treatments for uveitis focus on reducing inflammation and pain, preventing tissue damage, and counteracting vision loss. A doctor may recommend:
- corticosteroid injections or drops
- oral immunosuppressive medication
- anti-inflammatory eye drops or oral medication
Scleritis is severe inflammation of the sclera — the outermost membrane of the eye.
People can develop scleritis as a result of an infection or autoimmune disease, or as a side effect of medication. In some cases, doctors cannot identify the cause.
A person with scleritis may experience mild-to-severe eye pain that gets worse at night or with eye movement. Other symptoms include:
- sensitivity to light
- watery eyes
- reduced vision
Doctors may perform multiple tests to diagnose scleritis. These include:
- imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRI scans, and CT scans
- antibody tests
- a complete blood count
- tests for Lyme disease or rheumatoid arthritis
The right treatment will depend on the underlying cause of scleritis, as well as the type and severity of symptoms.
In general, treatments for scleritis include:
- corticosteroid eye drops, oral tablets, or injections
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen
- immunosuppressive medications
- biologics, including infliximab and rituximab
4. Cluster headaches
Cluster headaches can cause severe pain. People often describe the pain as searing, burning, or stabbing, and it tends to occur above the eye or near the temple.
In this context, a “cluster” refers to a group of headaches. They usually occur during the day, and one cluster commonly lasts from 15 minutes to 2 hours.
Clusters may occur frequently for several days or weeks, with pain-free periods in between.
Other symptoms of cluster headaches include:
- intense pain on one side of the head
- red or watery eyes
- a runny or stuffy nose
- pupil constriction
- drooping eyelids
- restlessness or agitation
Migraine is a common neurological disease that can cause headaches and episodes of other symptoms. It affects about 29.5 million people in the United States.
A migraine headache can cause severe, throbbing pain behind one or both eyes, and a person may also experience:
- sensitivity to light and sound
- vision changes, such as seeing flashing lights or partial vision loss
- loss of coordination
- nausea and vomiting
- mood changes
- difficulty concentrating
Symptoms of a migraine headache or episode typically last for 4–72 hours.
Doctors and researchers still do not fully understand what causes migraine. However, certain factors can trigger symptoms. Among them are:
- emotional triggers, including stress or anxiety
- physical stress, due to lack of sleep, poor posture, or overexertion
- certain foods, such as chocolate, aged cheeses, and processed meats
- beverages that contain alcohol or caffeine
- hormonal changes, such as those that occur during menstruation or menopause
- overuse of certain medications, such as over-the-counter pain relievers
6. Angle-closure glaucoma
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause vision loss and blindness.
There are three types of glaucoma: open-angle, normal-tension, and angle-closure.
In the U.S., open-angle glaucoma is the most common form, and most people who have it do not experience symptoms right away.
Angle-closure glaucoma occurs when fluid quickly builds up in the front of the eye, causing a sudden increase in pressure and intense eye pain. Another name for this disease is narrow-angle glaucoma.
Other symptoms include:
- a sudden, severe headache
- blurred vision
- seeing halos around bright lights
The symptoms of angle-closure glaucoma develop rapidly.
This condition is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. A doctor can drain the excess fluid and prescribe medication that reduces the pressure in the eye.
7. Tolosa-Hunt syndrome
Tolosa-Hunt syndrome is a rare medical condition that causes sudden, severe eye pain.
It usually affects one eye, and moving the eye may be particularly painful. Some people also experience temporary paralysis in the eye.
Other symptoms include:
The symptoms of Tolosa-Hunt syndrome often clear up without medical intervention and recur sporadically.
The exact cause of the syndrome remains unknown. However, some researchers believe that it arises from the inflammation of certain areas behind the eye and that this relates to an abnormal autoimmune response.
Severe or persistent eye pain can indicate an underlying medical condition, such as uveitis, scleritis, or angle-closure glaucoma.
A person should contact an ophthalmologist or their regular doctor if they have:
- severe eye pain
- eye pain that does not go away after a few hours
- visual disturbances, such as blurred vision or dark spots
- visible swelling of the eye or nearby tissues
- nausea or vomiting
Sharp pain in the eye can cause significant discomfort. Depending on the cause, the pain may resolve without treatment, or the issue may require medical intervention.
A person should contact a doctor if they experience severe eye pain or any eye pain that lasts for more than a few hours, as these symptoms can indicate a more serious underlying condition.
Many causes of sharp eye pain are treatable. A doctor will often focus on reducing inflammation and pain, preventing tissue damage, and recovering any loss of vision.