Eye pain and headache can refer to discomfort around or behind the eye. The pain can be experienced in the right or left eye, or in some cases, both eyes at the same time. If you’ve recently experienced an eye injury, then the underlying cause will be obvious. However, when eye pain is accompanied by a headache and seemingly comes from nowhere, then it can be hard to pinpoint the root cause. Additionally, how mild or severe the pain is does not indicate the severity of the problem. However, there are many types of serious eye conditions that cause no pain at all, such as macular degeneration, while mild conditions such as a scratched cornea, can be incredibly painful.
Eye pain can be described as:
- Dull ache
- Burning sensation
- Feeling as though a foreign body is stuck in the eye
- Stabbing pain
Eye pain may also be accompanied by redness, blurry vision, and light sensitivity.
Surface Pain-Red Eyes and Headache
For some, nothing can be worse than chronic headaches, especially when the eyes are affected. Headaches and eye pain can be very debilitating. It may leave you unable to work, drive, or go about your day to day tasks. This can be especially true if you work on a computer or have a very physically demanding job. Learning what can trigger your headaches can help you learn how to prevent them from occurring in the future. However, for some, headaches may be caused by something more serious than strenuous activities or too much caffeine. In fact, it can be caused by disease or a serious chronic condition.
If you’re experiencing pain that involves the surface of the eye, that’s accompanied by red eyes, then you may actually have a foreign body embedded in the cornea’s surface. This can be something as small as a grain of sand, but it will cause intense pain and will be difficult to detect.
Other common materials that can become embedded in the cornea include organic material such as dirt and sawdust, as well as metal shavings.
This level of pain caused by a foreign body tends to range from mild to severe. Pain can intensify with blinking or when you rub your eyes. Light sensitivity, redness, and blurred vision are also common. This source of eye pain will require immediate medical attention. If you fail to seek treatment you can risk serious damage to your cornea, not to mention a bacterial infection. Once you meet with your doctor, he will carefully flush the eyes and remove the offending foreign body. Antibiotic drops may be prescribed to prevent or treat an infection as your eye heals.
Fortunately, most cases of superficial cornea scratches will heal in a period of twenty-four hours. A deep corneal abrasion can take several days to heal, especially if it’s left untreated. Most people will have trouble determining if their severe headache and eye pain are caused by a deep abrasion, a minor one, or even a corneal ulcer. As I mentioned earlier, even a minor corneal scratch can be extremely painful.
Because it’s often impossible to tell if eye pain is due to a minor scratch, a deep abrasion or a corneal foreign body, it’s a good idea to see an eye doctor for any intense discomfort of the eye that does not resolve very quickly, to determine the underlying cause.
Dry Painful Eyes
Dry eyes can be another cause of eye pain and it’s often accompanied by a mild to severe headache. This type of discomfort will gradually happen over time. At times, it can even lead to a corneal abrasion because there is not enough moisture on the surface of the eye to protect it, keeping it slippery and moist. Using artificial tears can help to minimize discomfort since the pain is mainly caused by dryness. In many cases, this condition will not require urgent medical attention, however, your doctor may need to perform tests in order to determine how severe the condition is and what type of treatment will be the most effective.
Conjunctivitis-One-Sided Headache and Eye Pain
Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis can cause one-sided eye pain and a headache. This is usually when the infection is only in one eye, although it can easily spread to both eyes in a matter of hours. Both viral and bacterial pink eye will cause the same symptoms, which include:
Viral conjunctivitis will usually clear up on its own and will not require any type of medication, other than soothing eye drops that can minimize pain, dryness, irritation, and itching.
Bacterial conjunctivitis will require prescription antibiotic eye drops. Both types of pink eye can also be treated with hot compresses, which can help to reduce symptoms.
Symptoms for viral pink eye will peak on day three and often resolve in five to ten days. Bacterial pink eye can worsen without treatment. With antibiotics, this type of conjunctivitis will often clear up in a few days.
Endophthalmitis-Red Eyes and Headache
Endophthalmitis is a very serious condition that involves the inflammation of the interior of the eye. It’s often caused by bacteria related to an eye injury, however, it’s also a common secondary infection that occurs after eye surgery.
In addition to eye pain, this condition will also cause:
- Severe headache
- Swollen eyelids
- Blurry vision
Endophthalmitis will not only cause pain and inflammation, but it can also cause symptoms such as swelling of the eyelids, changes in vision, redness, and excessive tearing. If you experience any of these symptoms after you have undergone eye surgery, contact your physician immediately.
Pain Behind the Eye-Severe Headache with Eye Pain
Common causes of pain located behind the eyes often include sinus infections, migraine headaches, and tension headaches. Migraine headache eye pain is said to be severe and extremely debilitating.
If the source of the pain is caused by a migraine headache, the pain will usually be located behind the right or left eye. Often, there will also be pain located elsewhere on that side of the head.
Pain that’s caused by a sinus infection is nowhere as severe as that of a migraine, however, it can last for several hours and can be mild to moderately uncomfortable, depending on the severity of the infection.
In the case of a migraine headache, the pain is almost always behind only one eye and is often accompanied by pain elsewhere on the same side of the head. Aside from eye pain, excessive tearing may also be present and can result in severe eye irritation if not treated. Excessive tearing is often a characteristic of eye infections, cluster headaches, migraines, and sinusitis.
This type of headache can last for several hours. In severe cases, it can last for days. The type of pulsing or pounding pain will first develop behind the eye and feel like a type of intense pressure or stabbing pain. Over a period of minutes or hours, the headache will gradually grow worse. Any type of movement, bright light, activity, or noise will intensify the pain. Vomiting and nausea are also common. Eye pain, redness, and pressure can also be expected. Some people may experience a migraine once or twice a year, while others can have them on a daily basis. While there are several different types of migraines, the classic migraine is the most common.
Auras are often the first warning sign that indicate a migraine is heading your way. The aura affects the way you see. Some people with see floaters, flashing lights, patterns or lines, or white or black shadows. In severe cases, you can lose some of your vision. While this may sound terrifying, nothing can quite compare to the pain that follows shortly after.
The auras will last for approximately twenty to thirty minutes. The aura will usually appear before the pain begins. Head pain will often occur on the same side of the head as the eye pain.
Migraine pain can be very intense and can prevent you from performing any of your daily activities including driving or even walking. However, the way a migraine is experienced isn’t the same for everyone. Many people will have a premonition many hours before a headache begins. This involves feelings a person will get that signal a migraine is coming. These feelings can include fatigue, mood changes, intense energy, or even food cravings.
Other symptoms of migraines include:
- Dull aching pain on one side of the head
- Intense throbbing on one side of the head
- Changes in vision
- Eye pain
- Eye redness
- Pain that worsens with bright light or loud noise
- Pain that worsens with physical activity
- Nausea that intensifies with different odors
- Increased fatigue
- Increased confusion
- Cold sweats
- Stiff neck
- Tender neck
- Stuffy nose
- Tingling or pain in scalp
Physicians still aren’t certain exactly what causes this type of headache. Some can be caused by changes in serotonin levels. This is because serotonin plays a big role in the body and can have an impact on blood vessels. When the levels are higher than normal, the blood vessels will shrink. When the levels are lower than usual, the blood vessels will dilate. This dilation can cause other problems, including pain.
Extreme exercises such as weight lifting and HIIT can also trigger a migraine, as can changes in hormone levels, intense stress, or an injury.
Pinpointing the triggers of a migraine can be a huge deal. If you’re able to avoid these triggers you can potentially avoid a major migraine in the future. As an example, if you experience a sudden migraine onset after an intense workout, you may want to adjust the workout’s intensity in the future, or reduce the amount of weight you’re lifting. If you’ve identified caffeine as a trigger, you can prevent a migraine by minimizing your daily caffeine intake.
If you have a family history of migraines, then you’re much more likely to have one at some point in your life. Additionally, women are more likely to experience migraines, due to changing hormone levels during or before menstruation. Your age can also be a factor. Most people will have their first migraine during their teens, however, migraines can begin at any age. More commonly, a person will experience their first migraine before the age of forty.
Some people are more sensitive to triggers. As an example, strong smells, bright lights, or even certain foods can trigger a migraine. In children, infections, the flu, or the common cold can trigger a migraine.
Taking medication to prevent a migraine can be helpful for people who have two or more migraines a month. If your headaches are extremely debilitating then you may want to consider trying a medication that can prevent them or at the very least, minimize the symptoms you normally experience during a migraine. Some medications can also shorten the duration. These medications must be taken on a daily basis, even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms that a migraine is headed your way. Currently, there are two main types of medications used for treatment: prophylactic is one type of medication and it’s taken daily in order to reduce the frequency of migraines. The other type is called abortive and it works by stopping the migraine from becoming severe, while also reducing the pain behind the eye and in the head. You should use this type of medication as soon as you experience any migraine signs.
Pain behind the eyes won’t always indicate a medical emergency in your future. However, if you begin to experience chronic pain, then it may be time to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician.
Can Headaches Cause Red Eyes?
Yes. The amount of pressure and strain placed on the eyes can cause the blood vessels to dilate, resulting in bloodshot eyes.
Though pain behind the eyes from these causes typically is not an emergency, if you have chronic or recurring pain of this type, see an optometrist or general physician for treatment and to determine what can be done to prevent future episodes.
Glaucoma is a disease of the eye that can cause irreversible blindness if left untreated. Eye pain accompanied by severe headaches are the earliest symptoms. There are two types of glaucoma:
- Open angle
- Angle closure
Open angle is a long duration condition, while angle closure can be a chronic disease or sudden condition. This disease involves the optic nerve, which is the major nerve of vision. This nerve is what receives impulses that are light generated from the retina. The nerve will then transmit the signals to the brain. This condition is characterized by progressive damage to the nerve that starts off with a minor loss of vision. In some cases, this condition is associated with severe pressure in the eye that leads to nerve damage. This increase in pressure will cause headaches, swelling, eye redness, pain, and trouble with peripheral vision. In fact, if left untreated, peripheral vision is often significantly hindered by the amount of pressure applied to the optic nerve. When left untreated, a person’s peripheral vision is the first to be affected and can be permanently lost.
Sinus Headache Eye Pain
The sinuses are located between, behind, and below the eyes. These hollow spaces in the skull can cause a mild to moderately painful headache that can be difficult to treat. Pressure around the eyes and a throbbing pain are one of the first symptoms of a sinus infection. Other sinus infection systems include:
- Red eyes
- Pressure in the face
- Pain in the face
- Mucus discharge from the nose
- Painful and sore throat
A mild antibiotic, typically penicillin, is often prescribed for sinus infection treatment. With medication, the infection should clear up within three to five days.
Tension Headache Eye Pain
Tension headaches are considered the most common type of headache and one that can cause mild to intense pain behind the eyes and in the head and neck. People who experience a tension headache often have more than one headache a week. These headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the neck and head and they can strike for several reasons ranging from food or exercise to stress and poor posture.
Other triggers include:
- Eye allergies
- Dry eyes
- Alcohol consumption
Tension headache symptoms include:
- Pressure in the face
- Dull pain in the head
- Tender scalp
The pain is usually described as mild to moderate, but in some cases, it can also be severe. Fortunately, the tension headache doesn’t share the same type of severe symptoms that are often associated with migraines, such as vomiting and nausea or changes in vision.
Treatment is rather simple. Most over the counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, will work to minimize the pain and discomfort associated with this type of headache. However, overuse of these medications can cause rebound headaches, which can occur when a person has become too accustomed to a certain medication. For some, over the counter medication will not be enough to effectively treat this type of headache. In these cases, a doctor may prescribe:
For chronic headache sufferers, certain treatments can help to reduce the frequency in which they experience them on a daily or weekly basis. Natural treatments can include biofeedback, stress management techniques, and meditation.
Red Eye Fever and Headache
These symptoms can indicate a wide range of conditions include:
- Sinus infection
- Ear infection
- Urinary tract infection
If you’re experiencing red eyes, a fever, and a headache, and you’re unable to identify the underlying cause, make an appointment with your doctor. This will be especially important if you’ve experienced these symptoms for longer than three days with no signs of improvement.
Chemical Exposure-Eye Pain Headache
Chemical exposure to the eyelids or eye can result in a serious chemical burn that will cause mild to severe pain. In fact, chemical burns account for almost ten percent of eye injuries every year. While a chemical burn may only cause mild discomfort, every chemical burn should be taken very seriously since it can result in impaired vision if not treated immediately. In most cases, the severity of the burn will vary based on chemical type. Usually, the injury will be limited to the front portion of the eye. As an example, if you were exposed to chemicals in your left eye, then you may have left eye pain headache, caused by damage to the left eye’s conjunctiva and cornea. Chemical burns will rarely affect the entire eye. However, burns that are able to penetrate deeper than the cornea can lead to glaucoma or cataracts, later in life.
For mild chemical burns, you’ll only focus on how to soothe irritated skin around the eyes and eyelids. Over the counter drops will be sufficient in controlling pain and preventing dryness and irritation. For moderate to severe burns, medical attention is necessary.
Chemical exposure can also be caused by everyday anti-aging products that contain powerful chemicals designed to reduce the signs of aging. One of the most common ingredients includes retinol. Should retinol get in your eye it can lead to pain, swelling, inflammation, and possible corneal damage. If you’d like to learn a safer way to turn back the hands of time using products that are effective and gentle, read my article on how to get rid of wrinkles under your eyes when you smile.
Blepharitis and Pain
This is a condition that involves chronic irritation of the eyelids, which will cause swelling, discharge, and redness. It can have a wide range of causes, which can make it difficult for your physician to pinpoint the root cause. Common causes will include:
- General irritation
The signs and symptoms include burning, headache, pain, discharge, increased tearing, itching, and pressure. Unfortunately, once you’ve dealt with blepharitis, it’s more likely that you’ll have a flare-up in the future. To learn how to manage this condition, read my article on how to get rid of blepharitis for good.
Pain, Headache, and Discharge
Can a cold cause eye discharge? Yes. With an upper respiratory infection, it’s common to experience nasal and eye discharge, headache, eye pain and swelling, a sore throat, and pressure in and around the eyes. Upper respiratory infections often resolve on their own and rarely require medical intervention. With an upper respiratory infection, it’s also common for people to have viral conjunctivitis, which is what will cause the eye discharge, swelling, pain, and discomfort. This type of pink eye does not require treatment or antibiotics and will usually peak at day three or four. To learn more, click here to read my guide on what causes eye discharge in babies and children.
Cluster Headaches and Eye Pain
A cluster headache can strike several times a day. These headaches will hit seemingly out of nowhere and can last for a long length of time. They can also be very painful. Fortunately, this type of headache isn’t very common and will affect only one in every thousand people. These headaches typically only affect one side of the head and around the eyes. The eyes can become red and swollen. This is accompanied by an intense feeling of pressure around the eyes. There are several treatment options available, however, there is currently no real cure for cluster headaches and no way to prevent them.
Symptoms can include severe pain that begins abruptly and without warning. Instead of a throbbing pain, this type of pain is described as constant. There will also be ongoing pressure and pain behind the eye on the same side of the head that’s affected. The pain will often begin behind the eye, radiating to other areas of the head and can also affect the shoulders and neck. In severe cases, it can also be accompanied by intense pain and pressure in the face.
A person may also experience:
- Drooping of the eyelid
- A change in pupil size
- Ashen skin
- Nasal pain or stuffiness
- An eye that is red, swollen and watery
At this time, it’s not clear what can bring about an attack, however, research has shown that it has to do with the activity in the hypothalamus, which is the portion of the brain that controls the body’s thirst, hunger, and temperature.
Currently, no studies have been able to determine exactly why cluster headaches occur.
However, certain treatments such as oxygen therapy can work to reduce the severity of the attacks. Most cluster headache treatment will aim to shorten the duration of the headache and relieve some of the symptoms.
Over the counter pain medications usually aren’t very effective because the pain will begin and end so abruptly that by the time the medication takes effect the episode will be over. Because of this, fast-acting treatment is usually the best option. This will include taking Imitrex, inhaling oxygen, and taking dihydroergotamine.
Oxygen- This treatment option involves breathing in oxygen through a mask at ten liters per minute. For some people, oxygen treatment can provide relief in as little as ten minutes.
Imitrex- This medication is also commonly used to treat migraines and bring relief in as little as five to ten minutes, via injection. When taken orally, this medication will not take effect for twenty to thirty minutes.
Dihydroergotamine-This med can be inhaled or taken intravenously. While inhaling this medication is effective, it’s not as fast-acting as it is in IV form.
Nasal drops-Cluster headaches can also be treated with nasal lidocaine drops, which are fast-acting and a great option for mild to moderate cases.
Surgical procedures-Surgery may be necessary when all other options have been exhausted. If medication does not help with pain management or to reduce the frequency or severity of the headaches, then surgery will be used as a last resort. Unfortunately, this type of procedure can only be performed one time and will only work for patients with pain on one side of the head. Surgical procedures can include the cutting of the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is what serves the area around and behind the eyes. Unfortunately, with this surgery, there is a slight risk of damage to the eye.
Glycerol injections are also an option. This procedure involves injecting glycerol into the nerves in the face. This is said to be a much safer and more effective treatment compared to standard surgery.
Nerve stimulation is another safe option and it involves the implantation of a small device over the occipital nerve. This device works by sending impulses with the use of electrodes.
Deep brain stimulation may be needed if nerve stimulation treatment fails to work. This procedure also involves implanting a stimulator, but in the brain’s hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is linked to the timing of the headaches and works by changing the brain’s electrical impulses.
As you can see, there are many conditions that can result in eye pain and headache, whether it’s a migraine headache or a case of sinusitis. Because there are some many common causes, it’s important to meet with your physician if you’re unable to identify why you’re experiencing these symptoms and to learn what treatment options can help to reduce or eliminate these symptoms for good. In chronic cases, treatment will be more important since serious conditions such as glaucoma can be the root cause of chronic headaches and eye pain. If you’ve experienced more than two headaches a week that are accompanied by moderate to severe eye pain, make an appointment with your physician immediately for an assessment.