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Eye Pain: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Nearly everyone has eye pain or sore eyes at some point in life. Eye pain may be something that resolves on its own. But it also can be a sign of something more serious.

What Causes Eye Pain?

Discomfort or pain can be caused by a problem in the eye or structures around it, including:

  • Cornea: Clear window in the front of the eye that focuses incoming light
  • Sclera: White outside wall of the eye
  • Conjunctiva: Ultrathin covering of the sclera and inside the eyelid
  • Iris: Colored part of the eye, with the pupil in the middle
  • Orbit: Bony cave where the eye and eye muscles are
  • Extraocular muscles: Muscles that rotate the eye
  • Nerves: Carry visual information from the eyes to the brain
  • Eyelids: Outside covering of the eye, which protects and continually spreads moisture over the eyes

Eye problems can include:

  • Blepharitis: Inflammation or infection of the eyelid that causes irritation or pain.
  • Conjunctivitis (commonly called pinkeye): Inflammation of the conjunctiva caused by allergies or infections (viral or bacterial). Blood vessels in the conjunctiva become engorged, and the normally white part of the eye looks red. Other symptoms usually include itchiness and discharge.
  • Corneal abrasions. A scratch on the cornea is called an abrasion. It can be very painful. The cornea is vulnerable to injuries from children's flying fingers, errant tree branches, or tennis balls. With antibiotic drops and close monitoring by your doctor, corneal abrasions generally resolve completely without future problems.
  • Corneal infections (called keratitis): Inflamed or infected cornea sometimes caused from shingles (herpes zoster) or from wearing contact lenses overnight or without inadequate disinfection.
  • Foreign bodies: Something in the eye -- a bit of dirt, plant debris, or a fragment of a contact lens. These are usually just irritating, and tears or water rinse them out. If not removed, foreign bodies can cause corneal abrasions.
  • Glaucoma:Eye condition that usually has no early symptoms. In the case of acute angle closure glaucoma, though, pressure inside the eye rises suddenly. Symptoms include severe eye pain, nausea and vomiting, headache, and decreased vision. These symptoms are an emergency and need immediate treatment to prevent blindness.
  • Iritis or uveitis: Inflammation inside the eye, which is uncommon. Can be due to trauma, infections, or autoimmune conditions. Symptoms include pain, red eye, and, often, decreased vision.
  • Optic neuritis: When the nerve traveling from the back of the eyeball into the brain becomes inflamed. Multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune conditions or infections are often the cause. Symptoms include loss of vision and sometimes pain.
  • Stye (also called a hordeolum): An often painful infection or inflammation of the edges of the eyelid caused from the eyelash hair follicles or from oil glands. Usually a stye has a very localized, very tender area on one eyelid.

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