Eye Pain: A Merck Manual of Patient Symptoms podcast
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 Table 8: Some Causes of Eye Pain).
The most common causes overall are
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.
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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).
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.
The following findings are of particular concern:
Interpretation of findings:
Suggestive findings are listed in Table 8: 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 Table 8: 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).
Last full review/revision August 2014 by Kathryn Colby, MD, PhD
Content last modified August 2014