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Eye Pain

by Kathryn Colby, MD, PhD

Eye pain may be described as sharp, aching, or throbbing and should be distinguished from superficial irritation or a foreign body sensation. In some disorders, pain is worsened by bright light. Eye pain may be caused by a serious disorder and requires prompt evaluation. Many causes of eye pain also cause a red eye.


The cornea is richly innervated and highly sensitive to pain. Many disorders that affect the cornea or anterior chamber (eg, uveitis) also cause pain via ciliary muscle spasm; when such spasm is present, bright light causes muscle contraction, worsening pain.


Disorders that cause eye pain can be divided into those that affect primarily the cornea, other ocular disorders, and disorders that cause pain referred to the eye (see Some Causes of Eye Pain).

The most common causes overall are

  • Corneal abrasion

  • Foreign bodies

However, most corneal disorders can cause eye pain.

A feeling of scratchiness or of a foreign body may be caused by either a conjunctival or a corneal disorder.

Some Causes of Eye Pain


Suggestive Findings*

Diagnostic Approach

Disorders affecting primarily the cornea

Contact lens keratitis

Ocular ache, grittiness, prolonged wearing of contact lenses, bilateral red eyes, lacrimation, corneal edema

Clinical evaluation

Corneal abrasion or foreign body

Usually clear history of injury, unilateral pain when blinking, foreign body sensation

Sometimes a predisposing disorder such as trichiasis

Lesion or foreign body visible on slit-lamp examination

Clinical evaluation, including eyelid eversion

Corneal ulcer

Aching, foreign body sensation, photophobia, red eye, grayish opacity on cornea, followed by a visible crater

Possibly history of sleeping with contact lenses

Scrapings for culture (done by ophthalmologist)

Epidemic keratoconjunctivitis (adenoviral keratitis) when severe

Ocular ache, grittiness, bilateral red eyes, copious watery discharge, preauricular lymphadenopathy, chemosis (bulging of the conjunctiva), often eyelid edema

Punctate corneal staining on fluorescein examination

Clinical evaluation

Herpes zoster ophthalmicus

Early: Unilateral vesicles and crusts on an erythematous base in a V 1 distribution, sometimes affecting the tip of the nose

Eyelid edema, red eye

Late: Redness, quite severe pain

Often associated with uveitis

Clinical evaluation

Viral culture if diagnosis is unclear

Herpes simplex keratitis

Acute: Onset after conjunctivitis, blisters on eyelid

Late acute or recurrent: Classic dendritic corneal lesion on slit-lamp examination

Usually unilateral (may be bilateral in children or patients with atopy)

Clinical evaluation

Viral culture if diagnosis is unclear

Welder’s or UV keratitis

Onset hours after exposure to excessive UV light (eg, from welding or bright sun on snow)

Bilateral; ocular ache, grittiness

Marked injection and typical punctate corneal staining on fluorescein examination of the cornea

Clinical evaluation

Other ocular disorders

Acute angle-closure glaucoma

Severe ocular ache, headache, nausea, vomiting, halos around lights, hazy cornea (caused by edema), marked erythema

Intraocular pressure usually > 40 mm Hg

Gonioscopy by ophthalmologist

Anterior uveitis

Ocular ache, ciliary flush, photophobia, often a risk factor (eg, autoimmune disorder, posttrauma)

Cells and flare on slit-lamp examination

Rarely hypopyon

Clinical evaluation


Ocular ache, intense conjunctival hyperemia, photophobia, severely decreased visual acuity, risk factors (usually recent intraocular surgery or trauma)


Cells and flare and commonly hypopyon on slit-lamp examination

Clinical evaluation and cultures of aqueous or vitreous humor by ophthalmologist

Optic neuritis

Mild pain, which may worsen with eye movement

Vision loss, ranging from a small scotoma to blindness

Afferent pupillary defect (a particularly characteristic finding if some visual acuity is preserved)

Eyelids and cornea normal, sometimes a swollen optic disk

Consideration of gadolinium-enhanced MRI to look for optic nerve edema and demyelinating lesions within the brain (most commonly due to multiple sclerosis)

Orbital cellulitis

Ocular ache, periocular ache, red and swollen eyelids, proptosis, impaired extraocular movements, decreased visual acuity, fever


Sometimes preceded by symptoms of sinusitis


Orbital pseudotumor

Ocular ache, periocular ache (may be very severe), unilateral proptosis

Impaired extraocular movements, periorbital edema, gradual onset




Pain very severe (often described as boring), photophobia, lacrimation, red or violaceous patches under bulbar conjunctiva, scleral edema

Often history of autoimmune disorder

Clinical evaluation

Disorders causing referred pain

Cluster or migraine headaches

Prior episodes, characteristic temporal pattern (eg, clusters of episodes at the same time each day)

Aura, knifelike quality, throbbing, rhinorrhea, lacrimation, facial flushing, sometimes photosensitivity or photophobia

Clinical evaluation


Sometimes periorbital edema but eye examination otherwise unremarkable

Purulent rhinorrhea, headache, or eye or facial pain that varies with head position

Facial tenderness, fever, sometimes productive nocturnal cough, halitosis

Sometimes CT

*Routine evaluation should include slit-lamp examination with fluorescein staining and ocular tonometry.

Most patients have lacrimation and true photophobia (shining a light into the unaffected eye causes pain in the affected eye when the affected eye is shut).

UV = ultraviolet; V 1 = ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve.



History of present illness should address the onset, quality, and severity of pain and any history of prior episodes (eg, daily episodes in clusters). Important associated symptoms include true photophobia (shining a light into the unaffected eye causes pain in the affected eye when the affected eye is shut), decreased visual acuity, foreign body sensation and pain when blinking, and pain when moving the eye.

Review of systems should seek symptoms suggesting a cause, including presence of an aura (migraine); fever and chills (infection); and pain when moving the head, purulent rhinorrhea, productive or nocturnal cough, and halitosis (sinusitis).

Past medical history should include known disorders that are risk factors for eye pain, including autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis, migraine, and sinus infections. Additional risk factors to assess include use (and overuse) of contact lenses (contact lens keratitis), exposure to excessive sunlight or to welding (ultraviolet keratitis), hammering or drilling metal (foreign body), and recent eye injury or surgery (endophthalmitis).

Physical examination

Vital signs are checked for the presence of fever. The nose is inspected for purulent rhinorrhea, and the face is palpated for tenderness. If the eye is red, the preauricular region is checked for adenopathy. Hygiene during examination must be scrupulous when examining patients who have chemosis, preauricular adenopathy, punctate corneal staining, or a combination; these findings suggest epidemic keratoconjunctivitis, which is highly contagious.

Eye examination should be as complete as possible for patients with eye pain. Best corrected visual acuity is checked. Visual fields are typically tested by confrontation in patients with eye pain, but this test can be insensitive (particularly for small defects) and unreliable because of poor patient cooperation. A light is moved from one eye to the other to check for pupillary size and direct and consensual pupillary light responses. In patients who have unilateral eye pain, a light is shined in the unaffected eye while the affected eye is shut; pain in the affected eye represents true photophobia. Extraocular movements are checked. The orbital and periorbital structures are inspected. Conjunctival injection that seems most intense and confluent around the cornea and limbus is called ciliary flush.

Slit-lamp examination is done if possible. The cornea is stained with fluorescein and examined under magnification with cobalt blue light. If a slit lamp is unavailable, the cornea can be examined after fluorescein staining with a Wood light using magnification. Ophthalmoscopy is done, and ocular pressures are measured (tonometry). In patients with a foreign body sensation or unexplained corneal abrasions, the eyelids are everted and examined for foreign bodies.

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Vomiting, halos around lights, or corneal edema

  • Signs of systemic infection (eg, fever, chills)

  • Decreased visual acuity

  • Proptosis

  • Impaired extraocular motility

Interpretation of findings

Suggestive findings are listed in Some Causes of Eye Pain. Some findings suggest categories of disorders.

Scratchiness or a foreign body sensation is most often caused by disorders of the eyelids, conjunctivae, or superficial cornea. Photosensitivity is possible.

Surface pain with photophobia is often accompanied by a foreign body sensation and pain when blinking; it suggests a corneal lesion, most often a foreign body or abrasion.

Deeper pain—often described as aching or throbbing—usually indicates a serious disorder such as glaucoma, uveitis, scleritis, endophthalmitis, orbital cellulitis, or orbital pseudotumor. Within this group, eyelid swelling, proptosis, or both and impaired extraocular movements or visual acuity suggest orbital pseudotumor, orbital cellulitis, or possibly severe endophthalmitis. Fever, chills, and tenderness suggest infection (eg, orbital cellulitis, sinusitis).

A red eye suggests that the disorder causing pain is ocular rather than referred.

If pain develops in the affected eye in response to shining light in the unaffected eye when the affected eye is shut (true photophobia), the cause is most often a corneal lesion or uveitis.

If topical anesthetic drops (eg, proparacaine) abolish pain in a red eye, the cause is probably a corneal disorder.

Some findings are more suggestive of particular disorders. Pain and photophobia days after blunt eye trauma suggest posttraumatic uveitis. Hammering or drilling metal is a risk factor for occult metal intraocular foreign body. Pain with movement of extraocular muscles and loss of pupillary light response that is disproportionate to loss of visual acuity suggest optic neuritis.


Testing is not usually necessary, with some exceptions (see Some Causes of Eye Pain). Gonioscopy is done if glaucoma is suspected based on increased intraocular pressure. Imaging, usually with CT or MRI, is done if orbital pseudotumor or orbital cellulitis is suspected, or if sinusitis is suspected but the diagnosis is not clinically clear. MRI is often done when optic neuritis is suspected, looking for demyelinating lesions in the brain suggesting multiple sclerosis.

Intraocular fluids (vitreous and aqueous humor) may be cultured for suspected endophthalmitis. Viral cultures can be used to confirm herpes zoster ophthalmicus or herpes simplex keratitis if the diagnosis is not clear clinically.


The cause of pain is treated. Pain itself is also treated. Systemic analgesics are used as needed. Pain caused by uveitis and many corneal lesions is also relieved with cycloplegic eye drops (eg, cyclopentolate 1% qid).

Key Points

  • Most diagnoses can be made by clinical evaluation.

  • Infection precautions should be maintained when examining patients with bilateral red eyes.

  • Important danger signs are vomiting, halos around lights, fever, decreased visual acuity, proptosis, and impaired extraocular motility.

  • Pain in the affected eye in response to shining light in the unaffected eye when the affected eye is shut (true photophobia) suggests a corneal lesion or uveitis.

  • If a topical anesthetic (eg, proparacaine) relieves pain, the cause of pain is a corneal lesion.

  • Hammering or drilling on metal is a risk factor for occult intraocular foreign body.

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