Your eyes are one of the most complex and sensitive parts of your body, and when you feel any kind of pain in them, you need to pay attention. Some conditions are serious and need immediate attention; others are mild, and may just need rest and/or eye drops. Here’s a guide to figuring out what may be going on with the stabbing pain in your eye.
Different Types of Eye Pain
People describe eye pain in different ways – mild or intense, dull or sharp, throbbing or stabbing. It’s important to be able to describe what your pain feels like and where it’s centered:
- Location: Does the pain feel like it’s behind your eye, in your eye, or on the surface? Is it in one or both eyes?
- Intensity: Would you describe the pain as dull, achy, sharp, throbbing or stabbing? On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate your pain?
- Appearance: Is there any redness in or around your eye? Is your eye watering? Any swelling?
- When: Does it hurt more at certain times of day – for instance, right when you wake up?
- Duration: How long does the pain last – 5 seconds, 5 minutes, or longer?
- Recurrence: How often do you feel pain? Once a week, once a day, many times a day?
The answers to these questions will help an eye doctor diagnose what’s happening with your eye. The more specific you are, the more it helps your doctor figure out the cause.
Be aware that some serious eye conditions are not painful. If you feel that there is anything wrong with your vision or your eyes, it’s better to have it checked out by a professional.
Possible Causes of Stabbing Pain in the Eye
Here are some common causes and conditions that can cause pain in or around the eye:
- Abrasions (scratches) of the cornea: Corneal abrasions can happen from rubbing the eye when there’s a foreign body present, wearing contact lenses too long, being hit in the eye with an object, like a ball, or if eye comes in contact with something like a grain of sand. An abrasion of the cornea can feel like there’s something under the eyelid or in the eye that is unable to be found.
- Chemical burns: Many people work with hazardous substances in their jobs, but typical products at home can be dangerous too. Cleaning products, fertilizers, drain cleaners, nail polish remover and vinegar are some examples. When an irritating substance comes in contact with the eye, rinse the eye with saline solution or allow water from the shower irrigate the eye for at least 10 minutes, and then seek emergency help.
- Conjunctivitis: Also known as “pink eye,” conjunctivitis can be a bacterial, viral infection or an allergic reaction that causes inflammation of the membrane that protects the white of the eye and lines the eyelid. The inflammation makes blood vessels in the membrane more visible, which makes the eyes look red or pink.
- Contact lens problems: Wearing contact lenses for too long, wearing them when the eyes are too dry, sleeping in lenses that are not appropriate for sleep, or rubbing the eyes with the lenses in can cause corneal abrasions.
- Dry eyes (including Sjogren’s syndrome): This condition occurs when the lacrimal glands don’t produce enough tears – or the right kind of tears – to keep the eyes properly lubricated. It can be temporary, due to dry environments or poor air quality, or it may be ongoing; it can also be a symptom of Sjogren’s Syndrome. When the eyes get too dry, corneal nerves become irritated, sensitive and painful. Eye drops are often prescribed to help the eyes produce more tears, improve the quality of the tear and in turn improve symptoms, but can take several weeks take full effect for some people.
- Foreign bodies: Anything that isn’t supposed to be in the eye can cause discomfort, ranging from mild to severe. Foreign bodies can cause corneal abrasions and inflammation in other surrounding tissues of the eye.
- Glaucoma: The most common type of glaucoma, open-angle glaucoma, does not cause pain in most cases. But the sudden pressure change in acute-angle-closure glaucoma, sometimes called narrow-angle glaucoma, can cause severe pain, nausea and vomiting, redness and blurred vision. This condition requires immediate attention.
- Headaches (including cluster, “icepick,” or migraine): Pain that seems to radiate from the eye can be a symptom of severe headaches; the pain from a migraine, for instance, is often located behind one eye; the pain from cluster headaches can be excruciating occurring around one eye on one side of the head; and “icepick” headaches often produce stabbing pains around the eye or temple region typically lasting seconds.
- Infection: Infections of the eye are often viral or bacterial and if not treated can progress in severity. An infection can be the result of an injury or sometimes from contact lenses that were not properly cleaned. Sinusitis, while not an infection of the eye, is an infection of the sinus cavities, that can cause a pressure sensation behind the eyes can make the entire area achy and tender. Untreated infections can worsen and spread to common areas leading to further complications.
- Inflammation: Inflammation can be a source of pain in different areas of the eye. A few of the more common types of inflammation that lead to pain include:
- Blepharitis involves the eyelids, especially at the lid margin where the eyelashes grow.
- Iritis involves the iris, the colored part of the eye.
- Keratitis involves the cornea, the front surface of your eye.
- Scleritis involves the white part of the eye, and can be so painful that it wakes you at night.
Some inflammatory conditions are associated with other health conditions, such as diseases or autoimmune disorders.
- Map-dot fingerprint dystrophy: In this disorder, cellular abnormalities form beneath the cornea that can resemble the topography of a map or the curves of a fingerprint. As a result, the layers of the cornea don’t adhere to each other as well, and the outermost layer can be sloughed off, even as a patient sleeps (and especially in REM sleep, where the eyes move rapidly). The areas where the surface layer has sloughed off exposes nerves, which can cause searing pain. Over time, the condition can cause corneal erosions.
Eye Pain Tips
- DO: Rinse your eye with saline drops or tap water. If an abrasive or chemical liquid comes in contact with the eyes, rinse for at least 10 minutes, and then call your eye doctor. If a foreign body sensation is present, don’t try to remove it by yourself. Let your eyes tear as much as they will as the tears may wash out the irritant.
- DON’T: Rub your eye. If there’s a foreign object in it or you have a corneal abrasion, you can make it worse.
- DO: Call your eye doctor to see if you need an examination, testing or prescription eye drops. Be prepared with answers to the questions at the beginning of this article.
- DON’T: Put any sort of bandage or patch over your eye. If you feel that you need to put something over the eye to keep you (or a child) from touching it , loosely tape the bottom of a paper cup over the eye.
- DON’T: Put any ointment or other medicine in your eye without a doctor’s instructions.
If you have stabbing eye pain, or are looking for a specialist for general eye health, the experts at Barnet Dulaney Perkins Eye Center are ready to help you.