There can be various reasons why you may experience eye pain. Whether it's a sharp, stabbing, throbbing or dull pain, knowing where it is coming from can often help determine what could be causing it.
Certain types of eye pain can indicate conditions that can be easily treated after being picked up during an eye exam, while others may be more serious and require further investigation.
Types of eye pain
Here are some of the different types of eye pain and their symptoms to look out for:
Sudden sharp pain in the eye
A common cause of sudden sharp pain in the eye is if a foreign body goes into your eye. When dirt, dust, or a foreign object gets into the eye, it can cause irritation and sharp pain. To resolve this at home, try flushing your eye with lubricating drops.
If you wear contact lenses, remove them and rinse them out with the cleaning solution. If there is something sharp visible in your eye, don’t try to remove it yourself, but call your optometrist for advice. They might recommend you pop in and see us for some help.
If you can’t see anything in your eye but pain persists, it’s a good idea to see your optometrist, to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Pain in the eye and temple
Some types of headaches, like cluster headaches, can result in painful, sudden experiences that can have eye-related symptoms such as eye swelling, light sensitivity, constricted pupil and eye redness.1
Stabbing pain in eye
Much like sharp eye pain, a stabbing pain in the eye can happen for a number of reasons from eye irritation to more serious conditions.
Often, it’s nothing to worry about and will go away on its own. But if you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s important to book an eye test, so any underlying conditions can be detected and diagnosed as soon as possible.
Throbbing eye pain
Some conditions can cause eye pain that doesn’t necessarily feel ‘sharp’. This type of eye pain could indicate inflammation or swelling of some kind.
Although the pain may be less severe, it’s just as important to consult your optometrist if you’re experiencing symptoms.
Causes of eye pain
Sharp eye pain and acute angle-closure glaucoma
Acute angle-closure glaucoma should be treated as a medical emergency. This condition is caused by a rapid increase in pressure inside your eye, leading to severe eye pain and other symptoms such as blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, headache, and seeing halos around lights.
Acute angle-closure glaucoma can be treated with medication or laser surgery. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you should see an optometrist or doctor immediately.
Sharp eye pain and microbial keratitis (corneal infection)
Microbial keratitis is a painful infection that affects the cornea, the transparent layer at the front of your eye. It’s often related to contact lens wear or a scratch on the surface of the eye, but there are many other potential causes.
If not treated, it can lead to complications with your vision and may scar. Your eye may also become increasingly red and painful due to the development of an ulcer on the surface of the cornea.2
Occasionally, you can see this ulcer (it looks like a small white spot). It’s usually treated with antibiotic eye drops and, in some cases, a swab from the ulcer is taken to find out which bacteria has caused the infection. In serious cases, you may be admitted to the hospital to see an ophthalmologist. If you have symptoms of keratitis, you should contact your optometrist as soon as possible.
Sharp eye pain and scleritis
Inflammation of the white part of the eye (sclera) can cause sharp eye pain, redness, blurred vision, watery eyes, and extreme light sensitivity.3
Scleritis is often caused by an eye infection and it has been associated with various autoimmune disorders. The condition can be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and antibiotics.3
People with scleritis will see an ophthalmologist in order to prevent any further complications. Your optometrist can detect scleritis through a microscope called a slit lamp test during your eye exam.
Eye pain and iritis
Swelling and inflammation of the iris (the coloured ring around the pupil) can lead to pain in the eyes, redness, light sensitivity, and decreased vision. This condition is also called anterior uveitis and is usually detected through the use of a slit lamp.
Steroid and dilating eye drops can help relieve pain and inflammation. Without treatment, iritis can lead to complications such as vision loss, glaucoma, and cataracts. If you have symptoms of iritis, you should get your eyes tested as soon as possible.
Eye pain and optic neuritis
Optic nerve inflammation can lead to damage to the nerve fibres that carry visual signals from the eye to the brain. Symptoms of this condition, which is sometimes linked to multiple sclerosis, include eye pain and temporary vision loss.
Steroid medications can reduce inflammation and speed up recovery of vision. Most people regain close-to-normal vision after an episode of optic neuritis, but it is important to seek medical care. OCT technology can help to establish the presence or progression of optic neuritis.
Detecting and diagnosing eye pain
When should I be concerned about eye pain?
If you’re experiencing sharp eye pain it could be due to debris in the eye — try to flush it out with lubricating drops. If the pain persists, book an appointment with your optometrist as soon as possible.
What does a sharp pain behind your eye mean?
Migraines and, occasionally, sinus infections can be two common causes of pain behind one or both eyes. But there are occasions where pain behind the eye may indicate a more serious problem, such as scleritis (inflammation of the white part of your eye), optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve), or acute angle-closure glaucoma.
There are treatments available for these conditions, so it’s important not to ignore the symptom and to get your eyes tested as soon as possible.
Why do I have pain behind my left or right eye?
Although rare, if you experience discomfort or headache localised behind your left eye, it could be a sign of a brain aneurysm.4 This occurs when a blood vessel wall within your head weakens, leading to bulging due to the pressure exerted by the flowing blood. When this bulge applies pressure on nerves or adjacent tissues, it can result in pain and headaches. Alongside this, you might observe issues with your vision, numbness, or weakness on one side of your face, as well as problems with balance or speech. If you experience any of these symptoms individually or in combination, book an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Can OCT scans detect the causes of eye pain?
Optical coherence tomography (OCT) scans are just one part of a range of other valuable tests your optician will use to assess your eyes and to help them narrow down the cause of your eye pain.
Treatment of eye pain
Pressure or pain behind the eye is often temporary, linked to a headache or sinus pressure. However, there may be a more serious underlying cause, like an infection, inflammation, or tissue damage that needs treatment. Your optometrist or another healthcare provider will need to evaluate your eye health to find the source of pain behind the eyes. Then they can decide the best treatment options to help.
What relieves pain behind the eyes?
Some treatments for pain behind the eyes include:
- Removal of any foreign body
- Treatment of any underlying causes
- Prescription medication
- Home treatments like cold compresses
- Over-the-counter eye drops
- Over-the-counter painkillers
If you think your eye pain is caused by an injury or accident, or that there may be something stuck behind your eye, book an appointment as soon as possible, and ask your optician about adding an OCT scan to your eye test.
- NHS. (No date). Cluster Headaches. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cluster-headaches/ [Accessed 22 January 2020].
- Moorfields Eye Hospital. (No date). Microbial Keratitis. [Online]. Available at: https://www.moorfields.nhs.uk/sites/default/files/Microbial%20Keratitis.pdf [Accessed 4 February 2020]
- American Academy of Ophthalmology. (no date). What is Scleritis? [Online]. Available at: https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-scleritis [Accessed 14 November 2019].
- NHS (No date). Brain Aneurysm. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/... [Accessed 30 September 2023].