Sudden sharp stabbing pain in the eye is very uncomfortable and alarming. There are a variety of causes for sharp eye pain, ranging from simple causes, such as dry eye, to more severe ones, like glaucoma.
This article explores the causes of shooting eye pain and the possible treatment of stabbing eye pain. Sharp, sudden pain in the eye can also be a medical emergency, and help should be sought accordingly.
What causes a sharp stabbing pain in the eye?
Eye pain, called ophthalmalgia, is relatively common but rarely results from a severe condition—most cases of sudden eye pain in one eye resolve without treatment. A sudden, sharp pain in the eye is also described as a shooting, stabbing, or burning pain.
Depending on the location of the stabbing pain in the eye, eye pain can be divided into two categories:
A. Ocular pain: This type of pain occurs on the eye’s surface
B. Orbital pain: This type of pain comes from within the eye.
Eye pain localized to the surface is usually felt as a scratching, burning, or itching sensation. More profound pain within the eye can feel like aching, stabbing, or throbbing.
Eye pain alongside vision loss may be a medical emergency and requires an evaluation in person.
Following are some causes of sudden sharp stabbing pain in the eye:
1. Abrasions of the cornea
Corneal abrasions result from rubbing the eye when there’s a foreign body present. Some scenarios include wearing contact lenses for a prolonged period, an object hitting the eye, or the eye coming in contact with something like a grain of sand. An abrasion of the cornea gives the sensation of irritation like something is present under the eyelid or in the eye.
2. Dry eyes
This condition occurs when the lacrimal glands produce insufficient tears, and the eyes aren’t properly lubricated. Dry environments, poor air quality, or Sjogren’s Syndrome can lead to dry eyes. This condition can be temporary. Corneal nerves can become irritated, painful, and hypersensitive if the eyes dry excessively. Eye drops are often prescribed to increase the production of tears and help improve lubrication. However, it may take several weeks for these drops to be effective for some people.
“Pink eye” referred to as conjunctivitis, occurs due to a bacterial infection, viral infection, or an allergic reaction. All these cause inflammation of the eye’s membrane that covers the eye’s white part, and the membrane lines the eyelid. The inflammation engorges the blood vessels in the membrane more prominent, making the eyes appear pink.
4. Contact lens problems
Wearing contact lenses for a prolonged duration wearing them when your eyes are already dry, sleeping while wearing them, or rubbing the eyes with the lenses in them can result in corneal abrasions.
Infections of the eye are typically viral or bacterial and, if left untreated, can worsen. An infection can arise from an injury or contact lenses that were improperly cleaned before use. Sinusitis is primarily an infection of the sinus cavities that can cause tenderness, a pressure sensation behind the eyes, or a sharp pain. Untreated infections tend to spread to surrounding areas, leading to further complications.
Inflammation can cause pain in different areas of the eye. A few common conditions that arise due to inflammation that lead to sharp pain in the right eye or pain over the left eye or in both eyes include:
- Blepharitis: This condition causes inflammation on the eyelids, especially at the lid margin from where the eyelashes emerge.
- Iritis: Inflammation occurs in the colored part of the eye, termed the Iris.
- Keratitis: This condition may cause throbbing pain in the eye and involves the cornea, the front surface of your eye.
- Scleritis: Inflammation occurs in the white part of the eye, resulting in a throbbing pain in the eye or a sharp needle-like pain in the eye that wakes you at night.
The common type of glaucoma, open-angle glaucoma, is a painless condition. However, the sudden pressure change in acute-angle-closure glaucoma, sometimes called narrow-angle glaucoma, may suddenly cause sharp pain in the eye, redness, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting. This condition requires immediate medical attention.
8. Chemical burns
A household chemical/cleaning product, fertilizer, drain cleaner, nail polish remover, or any such liquid can cause a chemical burn. The pain can start as a needle-poking sensation in the eye and can be intense. It is advised to rinse the eye with saline solution or water for at least 10 minutes and seek medical attention immediately.
9. Headaches (cluster, “ice pick,” or migraine)
A sudden sharp pain in the eye for a second or a sharp pain in the eye and head can be due to severe headaches. Pain resulting from a migraine is often located behind one eye pain. Cluster headaches may cause sharp eye pain in one eye or around it. Ice pick headaches lead to a sharp stabbing pain in the eye that comes and goes or a sharp needle-like pain in the eye for a second; this pain can affect the temple region and lasts for a few seconds.
10. Map-dot fingerprint dystrophy
Cellular abnormalities beneath the cornea are the hallmarks of this condition. The layers of the cornea aren’t attached as well, and the outermost layer comes off easily, even during sleep, particularly REM sleep, where rapid eye movement occurs. The areas where the surface layer comes off expose nerves, resulting in excruciating pain. This condition can worsen as time passes, leading to corneal erosions.
How do you relieve stabbing eye pain?
The treatment plan depends on the cause of the pain or the condition. Some forms of treatment options include:
- Eye drops/ artificial tears
- Punctal plugs that help prevent tear drainage
- Using a humidifier
- Treatment of underlying medical problems
Treatment for Infections/pink eye:
- Some mild eye infections resolve without treatment
- Anti-viral or antibiotic eye drops or ointment
Cluster headache treatment includes:
- Triptan medicines, such as sumatriptan
- Anti-inflammatory (steroid) medicines such as prednisone
- Injections of dihydroergotamine (DHE)
Treatment for Corneal abrasion may include:
- Eye patch over the eye to promote healing speed and decrease comfort
- Antibiotic drops/ointment to help prevent infection
- Over-the-counter pain medications
- Artificial tears to keep the eye lubricated
Treatment for glaucoma may include:
- Prescription eye drops that help lower the eye pressure, preventing damage to the optic nerve
- Laser treatment is helpful in draining fluid out of the eye
- Surgery is done to help drain fluid if laser treatment is unsuccessful
Treatment for uveitis or scleritis usually involves steroid medications and is aimed at reducing inflammation and preventing vision loss:
- Prescription eye drops
- Oral Steroids
- Steroid injections in or around your eye
- Implant surgery (a small device into your eye provides small doses of steroids over time)
When should I be worried about eye pain?
Eyes are related to vision, and it is essential to consult a doctor to prevent any complications. Some situations that warrant an emergency check-up include:
- Injury to the eye, including trauma, burns or chemical exposure
- Foreign body
- Halo around lights
- Blurred vision
- Bulging eyeballs
- Double vision
- Inability to move the eyeballs
- Vomiting, along with the pain
Consult a doctor
Eyes and vision are sensitive matter, so if you’re experiencing sharp eye pain and are unsure about the cause, it’s time to consult a doctor at Your Doctors Online.
If you have an infection like pink eye, a prescription can be provided immediately. It is essential to rule out serious causes such as glaucoma or an underlying condition. In some cases, an emergency visit/evaluation may be required.
FAQs about sharp stabbing pain in the eye
Pain behind one eye can be caused by trauma/injury to the eye or an infection such as orbital cellulitis. It can also be a result of cluster headaches or migraines. Therefore, it is best to consult a doctor to be certain of the cause to prevent any complications.
Symptoms of neuropathy in the eye can range from pain when moving the eye, blurring of vision, blind spots, reduced vision, or complete loss of vision. The pain can be felt as grittiness, dryness, burning, aching, or even a sharp pain and light sensitivity.
Some symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia involving the eye include:
Redness in the eye
An infection of the cornea, pink eye/conjunctivitis, migraines, and dry eye, all these conditions can result in pain in one eye.