We all experience pain, and understandably go to great lengths to avoid it. But pain serves a very real purpose. Some forms of pain are protective; physical pain helps us avoid damage to ourselves and alerts us a problem is occurring that needs attention. It forces us to slow down, reminds us that we are not always in control, and helps us understand our bodies have limits. Pain can be a social experience. When we experience it, we put other people in the position of having to provide assistance. Relief from pain is one of the main reasons people seek a doctor.
September is “Pain Awareness Month”. Here are a few common causes of eye pain that you should be aware of.
- Dry Eye: With every blink, our eye is producing and draining tears. Tears are a complex mixture of oil, water, and mucous that collectively serve numerous functions including clear vision, protection, and comfort. When one or more components of our tears are at abnormally low levels, our vision can fluctuate, the eyes can burn and/or feel like something is in them, and they can turn red. These dry eye sign and symptoms are not normal, but are common with age, middle-aged women, certain medications, contact lens wearers, and those on a computer for hours a day. There are numerous treatments for this common problem both over the counter and by prescription.
- Hordeolum (also called a stye): The upper and lower eyes lids contain approximately 20 glands that release the oil layer of our tears with. Bacteria normally found in and around the eyes can infect these glands causing a red and painful bump. Most hordeolums resolve within days with warm compresses but an antibiotic and/or steroid can help speed recover and reduce pain.
- Conjunctivitis (also called pink eye): I don’t like the term “pink eye”. Here is why. The white part of our eye is covered by a transparent membrane called the conjunctiva that contains small blood vessels that, in a normal eye, are barely visible. When inflammation or infection to the eye occurs, these blood vessels get larger causing the eye to look red or “pink”. If this happens quickly and it is uncomfortable it is called conjunctivitis, and can have numerous causes including viral or bacterial injections, allergies, and other potentially vision threatening conditions. I have seen “pink eye” treatments over the counter in pharmacies. How do you treat a condition without knowing the cause? When a non-eye care provider (such as a primary care physician or a provider in a pharmacy clinic) sees a “pink eye” they commonly prescribe an anti-biotic, which is often unnecessary as most “pink eyes” are not bacterial in nature. If one or both of your eyes suddenly turn red and there is pain, you should see your eye care provider to determine the cause and best treatment.
- Corneal infections (called keratitis): An inflamed or infected cornea hurts! They are commonly viral (often the same virus that causes cold sores) or bacterial infections. These infections are often associated with wearing contact lenses overnight, wearing lenses that haven’t been properly cleaned or over wearing lenses past their disposable date. Newer technology contact lenses are daily disposable (vs. 2 week or monthly disposable) and have vastly diminished the rate of contact lens related infections. These infections need to be identified and treated quickly; they can lead to blindness!
- Corneal abrasions: This is one of the most painful conditions we see. A scratch on the cornea is called an abrasion, often caused by fingernails, tree branches, or other traumatic events that poke the eye. Luckily, the cornea heals fast, but treatment with antibiotics are necessary to prevent an infection and a bandage contact lens can be used to dramatically lower the pain while the eye heals.
- Iritis or uveitis: The iris is the colored part of the eye that is part of the uvea found inside the eye. Inflammation of these structures is commonly associated with a red, painful eye that increases in pain when exposed to light. If you have ever sprained your ankle, you know that it hurts to move it. The iris moves when exposed to light, causing the pain to increase. There are two reasons this condition needs to be identified and treated. The first is iritis can be vision threatening. Second, if the cause of the iritis is not related to trauma or an infection, a large percentage of them are due to an underlying condition that causes inflammation in the body and testing can identify a disease that may not have been known to exist.
We should all be self-aware of how our bodies feel. Pain is vitally important for survival and a warning sign that indicates a problem needs the appropriate attention.
by Jordan Keith, OD