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Eye Issues That Cause Headaches

If you frequently experience headaches, it could be due to a number of different factors. In some cases, headaches may be triggered by specific eye conditions. 

If you are suffering from frequent headaches and suspect they may be related to your eyesight, this guide will help you discover potential causes and related therapies.

Eye Strain

Eye strain can potentially cause headaches. This occurs when your eyes are overworked from staring at a computer screen, reading, or doing other up-close work. Symptoms of eye strain include headaches, fatigue, and blurred vision.

The medical name for eyestrain is asthenopia. This develops when you use your eyes too long or with too much intensity. The best cure for the condition is rest.

20-20-20 Rule

Have you heard of the 20-20-20 rule for relieving eye strain? Optometrists recommend using this rule for relieving the effects of computer use. Take a 20-second break every 20 minutes and look in the distance about 20 feet. It’s an easy rule to remember, as most people already know that perfect vision is 20/20.

Several sources refer to the 20-20-20 therapy, such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and the American Optometric Association (AOA). AOA refers to digital eye strain as computer vision syndrome.

Less Blinking

Also, take this into consideration when it comes to computers. AAO states that we usually blink about 15 times per minute. However, we’re less likely to blink when working on a computer. 

When using an electronic device and gazing at the screen, we may only blink five to seven times per minute. This can cause eye strain, as the eyes blink to keep the eyes lubricated and free of strain.

You can increase the moisture in your eyes with artificial tears or add a humidifier to dampen the dry air in a room. 

Other Considerations

Besides the 20-20-20 rule, AAO recommends using prescription computer eyeglasses, especially if you spend several hours per day on the computer. 

Besides adjusting the brightness and contrast, you might also sit differently at the computer. Sit about an arm’s length away from the screen, or about 25 inches. It also helps to adjust the screen so you’re slightly looking down and not straight ahead.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is an eye disorder that can cause headaches. 

Glaucoma is difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms are not always obvious at first. In most cases, the condition will present itself as either open-angle glaucoma or angle-closure glaucoma.

According to the Glaucoma Foundation, however, glaucoma can take other forms. While intraocular (inner eye) pressure is most often to blame, normal-tension glaucoma can occur when the optic nerve is damaged. In any of these cases, the patient may experience headaches.

Open-angle glaucoma, which is the most common form of the condition, does not affect the central vision right away. This is the vision used for daily activities, including reading or driving. This part of the vision is not affected until the disease reaches a severe phase.

Angle-closure glaucoma, which is a less severe form of the condition, may present itself in the form of emergency symptoms. This type of glaucoma surfaces when the drainage apertures in the eye are partly or entirely closed. This may also lead to damage to the optic nerve, which is often discovered during an eye exam.

Warning Signs

You should schedule an appointment with your ophthalmologist immediately if you’re having headaches as well as the following symptoms:

  • Bloodshot eyes, caused by dilated and swollen blood vessels
  • Severe eye pain and discomfort
  • Blurriness
  • Impaired vision
  • Seeing rainbows and halos
  • Stomach upset and vomiting

One or more of these symptoms, along with headaches, may point toward a possible diagnosis of glaucoma.

Diabetic Retinopathy

Another reason for headaches is a condition known as diabetic retinopathy. This eye problem can develop if you have diabetes. 

The elevations in your blood sugar can damage your retina over time. This is the part of the eye that receives and transmits vision signals to the brain via the optic nerve. When not managed, diabetes may lead to widespread blood vessel damage.

Ocular Migraines

Also known as a retinal migraine, an ocular migraine affects eyesight by triggering flashing lights in one eye or brief attacks of blindness. While these attacks can cause concern, they are usually temporary and harmless. 

Eyesight refers to normal thereafter. However, the related headache pain must be treated.

The headache occurs before, during, or after vision is affected. Your doctor can diagnose the problem using a device known as an ophthalmoscope. They may also diagnose the condition based on your own account of the symptoms.

An ocular migraine may occur due to stress, smoking, hypertension, or the use of oral contraceptives. Some people experience headaches if they exercise too much or do not drink enough water. 

Excessive heat and low blood sugar may cause migraine pain. Hormonal changes often lead to this type of headache as well.

This eye condition primarily affects women under the age of 40 who have a family history of migraines. They may also have an underlying disease, such as lupus, antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), temporal arteritis (inflammation of the temples at the side of the head), or sickle cell disease.

Treatment Options

You can treat a retinal migraine with an analgesic, such as aspirin, or a beta blocker, which relaxes the constricted blood vessels. You may also use a tricyclic antidepressant, which can prevent the migraine altogether. In addition, certain antiepileptics can prevent this type of head pain.

Uveitis

Uveitis, which is inflammation of the eye, may cause headache pain. It also blurs vision, produces floaters, causes eye pain and redness, and increases sensitivity to light. If not treated properly, the condition can lead to vision loss. 

To diagnose the condition, your eye doctor will dilate your eyes and review your medical history. Medicines that are injected are applied, and eye drops are used to treat the condition. 

Uveitis usually happens when your immune system is trying to fight an infection. The infection may damage the uvea, but it may also affect other parts of the eye. 

While it can resolve quickly, the eye infection may also reemerge. In some cases, it can affect a patient long term. If not treated properly, it can lead to vision loss.

The uvea is the middle part of the eye. It represents the layer between the white part of the eye (sclera) and retina, or the light-sensitive part of the eye in the back. 

The uvea is made up of three parts: the iris (colored part of the eye),  the ciliary body (the part that helps the lens focus), and the choroid (the part of the eye connecting the sclera and the retina).

Types of Uveitis

Uveitis may come in various forms, depending on where it develops:

  • Anterior uveitis or iritis inflames the iris in the front. It is the most common type of uveitis. It also is less serious.
  • Intermediate uveitis attacks the ciliary body and the vitreous, which is the gel-like fluid in the eye.
  • Posterior uveitis affects the back of the eye, or retina, as well as the choroid attachment.
  • Panuveitis affects the whole uvea.

Symptoms

Symptoms start immediately and include headache pain, blurred vision, floaters, eye redness, and light sensitivity. While anyone can get the infection, it occurs more often in people who are 20 to 60 years old. 

You are at higher risk if you smoke. Underlying contributing factors might include AIDS, lupus, psoriasis, or multiple sclerosis.

Treatment

A doctor often prescribes eye drops. If the condition results from an infection, they will administer an antiviral medicine or antibiotic.

Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, involves inflammation of the transparent membrane that covers the eyeball and the inner surface of the eyelid. It is a common eye disease, especially in children. 

The most common symptom of conjunctivitis is redness. Other symptoms include headache pain, itching, tearing, and discharge from the affected eye.

Viruses, bacteria, and allergies may trigger conjunctivitis. 

Viral Conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of pink eye. It is often caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. 

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis is less common than viral conjunctivitis but more serious. It is usually caused by bacteria such as staphylococcus or streptococcus. 

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the eyes come into contact with an allergen, such as pollen or dust mites.

Treatments

Most cases of pink eye are mild and resolve on their own within two to three weeks. However, some cases can be more serious and require treatment by a doctor. Treatment for viral conjunctivitis typically involves using artificial tears to relieve symptoms or waiting for the virus to run its course. 

Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with antibiotics. These medicines are not effective against viral infections. 

Allergic conjunctivitis can be treated with antihistamines or corticosteroids to relieve symptoms, including headache pain. In severe cases, allergy shots may be necessary.

Cataracts

Cataracts are one of the most common eye diseases that causes headaches. They occur when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy, which can result in blurred or double vision. 

Cataracts can also make it difficult to see at night. If left untreated, cataracts can eventually lead to blindness. 

Treatments

To eliminate a cataract, a phacoemulsification laser is used or a similar laser device. 

When phacoemulsification (PCS) is used , it breaks up the cataract, emulsifying the nucleus, so it can be suctioned and removed. After the surgery, the eye doctor inserts an intraocular lens (IOL) to replace the natural lens of the eye. The site heals without the need for sutures.

Femtosecond laser-assisted cataract surgery (FLACS) is also recommended, as it offers more precision when ocular incisions are made. For this reason, researchers have hypothesized that outcomes for FLACS may be better.

Medicines, such as triamcinolone or anti-vascular endothelial growth factors (anti-VEGF), may be injected into the eye to support the recovery process.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a serious eye condition that can lead to headaches, eye pain, and visual disturbances. This condition occurs when the macula, or the central part of the retina, deteriorates. 

This can trigger blurred or distorted vision and make it difficult to see fine details. AMD is the leading cause of blindness in adults over the age of 55. Both dry AMD and wet AMD fall under this category.

Dry Macular Degeneration

Dry macular degeneration is the most common type of AMD. It often occurs after small clumps of protein called drusen form on the macula, or the part of the retina that supports your central vision. 

These clumps can damage or kill cells in the macula, causing it to deteriorate. While drusen  itself is not the cause of AMD, it does increase a person’s risk for getting the age-related condition.

Wet Macular Degeneration

Wet macular degeneration occurs when new blood vessels grow under the retina and leak fluid or blood into the eye. This can cause vision loss more quickly than dry AMD.

Treatment

There is no cure for AMD, but early detection and treatment can slow its progression and help to preserve vision. If you have any symptoms of this condition, it’s important to see an eye doctor right away, so they can diagnose and treat the problem as soon as possible.

Treatment for AMD depends on the type. For early AMD, the doctor will monitor your eyes and encourage you to eat healthy or quit smoking.

If you’re in the intermediate stage in one or both of your eyes, you may prevent the progression of the disease with supplementation.

If you have been diagnosed with wet AMD, you may benefit from photodynamic therapy (PDT), which combines laser therapy with injections. 

Doctors are unable to treat late dry AMD.

Papilledema

Papilledema is the medical term that is associated with swelling of the optic nerve due to increased pressure within the skull. It is a serious condition that can lead to blindness if left untreated. 

Papilledema can be caused by a variety of conditions, including brain tumors, cerebral venous thrombosis, and idiopathic intracranial hypertension. The most common symptom of papilledema is headache pain.

Symptoms

Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, visual problems, and seizures. 

Treating the Condition

Treatment for papilledema typically involves lowering the blood pressure within the skull with medication or surgery.

Retinal Detachment

Retinal detachment occurs when your retina, or the light-sensitive layer of the tissue in the back of the eye, pulls away from its normal position. Symptoms may include the appearance of floaters in the field of vision, flashes of light, or a curtain-like shadow over the field of vision. 

Diagnosis & Treatment

A doctor can diagnose the condition during a dilated eye exam. Laser treatment is usually recommended to treat the problem. If not addressed, the condition can lead to permanent vision loss. It should be considered an emergency.

Final Thoughts

There are a number of eye diseases that can cause headaches, which can also have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. 

Remember, early diagnosis and treatment are often the key to managing these conditions effectively. If you’ve been experiencing chronic headaches or any vision changes, see a doctor promptly.

References

  1. Eye Strain. (April 2015). Kellogg Eye Center, University of Michigan Health System.

  2. Can You Have Better than 20/20 Vision? (January 2020). Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry.

  3. Computer Vision Syndrome. American Optometric Association.

  4. Computer Digital Devices and Eye Strain. (March 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  5. Types of Glaucoma. (2022). Glaucoma Research Foundation.

  6. Diabetic Retinopathy. (July 2022). National Eye Institute.

  7. Retinal Migraine. (August 2022). National Health Services.

  8. Lupus. (September 2020). National Health Services.

  9. Antiphospholipid Syndrome. (June 2022). National Health Services.

  10. Temporal Arteritis. (November 2020). National Health Services.

  11. Sickle Cell Disease. (April 2019). National Health Services.

  12. Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye). (November 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  13. Femtosecond Laser-Assisted Versus Phacoemulsification Cataract Surgery (FEMCAT): A Multicentre Participant-Masked Randomised Superiority and Cost-Effectiveness Trial. (January 2020). The Lancet.

  14. Eye Injections of Triamcinolone Acetonide for Retinal Blood Vessel Disorders. (October 2003). U.S. National Library of Medicine.

  15. Anti-VEGF Treatments. (March 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  16. Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). (June 2022). National Health Services.

  17. What Are Drusen? (March, 2022). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  18. Headache With Papilledema. (2022). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  19. Retinal Detachment. (April 2022). National Eye Institute.

  20. Visual Perception in Migraine: A Narrative Review. (April 2021). Vision.

  21. Double Vision and Headache. (June 2021). Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology.

Last Updated December 20, 2022

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