Headaches behind the eyes typically stem from one of several major causes which include headaches, eye problems, and nerve disorders and in some cases, a more serious issue. Each eye or both eyes can develop headaches behind them, however, the pain usually travels throughout the entire head.
Common symptoms associated with headaches behind the eyes include sensations such as burning, throbbing and explosive pains that feel either dull or sharp, as well as the following:
- Eye pain
- Dry eyes
- Watery eyes
- Facial weakness
- Loss of vision
- Double vision
- Sinus pressure
To determine the best method of treatment, it is best to do a thorough evaluation of symptoms. Once the cause is pinpointed, the usual course of treatment is as simple as resting and hydrating more as well as taking a painkiller and making better lifestyle choices.
However, if these remedies do not provide relief from the pain it is important to consult with a medical professional as soon as possible for full diagnosis and treatment.
The following are some of the major causes of headaches behind the eyes.
- Migraine Headaches
One of the most common causes of headaches behind the eyes that feature extreme pressure and pain are migraines.
- Common symptoms of migraines include light sensitivity, nausea, vomiting, confusion, numbness and intense throbbing pain in the form of a unilateral headache (front and sides of the head).
- Ophthalmoplegic or ocular migraines, can lead complete vision loss, but typically cause an individual to have intermittent vision loss as well as seeing squiggles and flashes.
- While they are not as common as tension headaches, migraines are usually much more severe and have the ability to completely incapacitate an individual. The condition has the potential to become an intense and painful migraine and can linger for several days or months at a time.
Treatment for migraine headaches involves using OTC medication such as Tylenol, Aleve, and Ibuprofen, getting enough sleep in a cool, quiet and dark room, and maintaining a consistent sleep pattern. Eating meals at regular intervals also helps to prevent migrates by controlling blood sugar levels.
Additional treatment options include drinking a cup of black tea or coffee (for the caffeine content that reduces headache pain), using ice packs, getting a relaxing massage, taking anti-seizure medication, blood pressure medication, anti-depressants, Botox and supplementing with vitamins.
Warning: Visit a doctor to get a prescription strength pain killer if migraine pain is severe.
- Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches are extremely uncommon, usually occur in a cyclical pattern and generally linger for between several days to one or two months a year, at approximately the same time.
- People with a family history of cluster headaches as well as members of the male gender suffer with the condition more than others.
- Common symptoms of cluster headaches are excruciating pain that is usually centered on one specific eye, eye redness, a stuffy or runny nose and watery eyes.
Treatment for cluster headaches involves taking medication for pain and getting as much rest as possible.
For some individuals using supplemental oxygen helps to quickly get rid of the pain by helping constricted blood vessels to open up and relax.
While over-the-counter medications are not effective for treating the pain of cluster headaches, specific prescription strength medications such as dihydroergotamine and sumatriptan can be obtained from a medical doctor to treat and prevent the condition as well as other types of headaches behind the eyes.
The head and face contain several sinus cavities that mainly surround the eyes, which makes headaches a common side effect of sinusitis caused by infections or allergies.
- Common symptoms of severe sinusitis include eye pressure, a stuffy and runny nose, light sensitivity, a slight fever and throbbing pain.
Treatment of headaches behind the eyes caused by sinusitis involves reducing pressure and congestion along with treating any existing infection with an antibiotic. Common methods of achieving this include using a neti pot or a saline nasal spray on a regular basis to stop and prevent recurring sinusitis.
When objects focus behind the retina of the eye instead of directly on it, the condition is known as long-sightedness or hyperopia.
- Hyperopia strains and weakens eye muscles over time as an individual struggles to focus on objects and see them clearly. As a result, this excessive eyestrain increases the chances of developing headaches.
Treatment of headaches due to long-sightedness involves seeing a vision specialist to determine if the cause is due to eye issues.
- Dry Eyes
Individuals who suffer with chronically dry eyes tend to develop headaches that result in a sensation of sharp and shooting pains behind the affected eyes.
- Common symptoms of headaches with dry eyes include burning, itching, discomfort and irritation as well as a sudden onset of extremely watery eyes, which happens in response to irritation and is caused by the eyes trying to correct excessive dryness.
- Habits that increase the risk of developing headaches with dry eyes include long stretches of staring at computer screens or televisions, as well as sitting too closely to these objects.
Treatment of dry eyes typically involves using a bottle of artificial tears to hydrate the tissues of the eyes on a regular basis as well as exploring prescription options for treating the underlying causes if the problem is extreme.
An astigmatism can lead to an individual developing headaches because of the irregular shape of the retina of the eyes.
- This condition causes headaches behind the eyes as a result of not being able to see objects clearly from certain angles and squinting the eyes excessively, which leads to discomfort and eyestrain.
Treatment of headaches due to astigmatism involves visiting an eye care specialist to figure out of the issue stems from vision problems.
- Orbital Inflammatory Syndrome
The part of the eye that houses the muscles that control eye movement, fat cells, lymphatics, nerves and blood vessels is known as its orbit. Inflammation of these tissues leads to the condition known as orbital inflammatory syndrome.
- While the direct cause is not known, a CT scan and blood tests are usually used to confirm the presence of the disease and to check for infections.
- Orbital inflammatory syndrome causes very painful headaches because of the pressure it puts on the eyes and the cavity of the brain.
- Common symptoms of the condition include extreme discomfort that results from touching the area immediately surrounding the eyes as well as looking from left to right. These symptoms are typically concentrated in the area behind the left eye.
Treatment for orbital inflammatory syndrome involves reducing inflammation with ibuprofen and other similar OTC medications.
Scleritis is a condition usually seen in individuals suffering with rheumatoid arthritis, gout and other medical syndromes, in which the outer surface of the eye is covered with a thin film (sclera). The risk of developing scleritis increases in the presence of diseases of the connective tissues in the body.
- Common symptoms of scleritis include intermittent spells of pain, redness, burning and inflammation.
Warning: Visit an eye care professional immediately if extreme eye redness and pain persist as it can lead to vision loss if left untreated.
Treatment for scleritis typically involves clearing infections with antibiotics as well as using prescription strength steroid-based and non-steroidal eye drop as well as treating the underlying cause with medications such as Humira (adalimumab) or methotrexate.
- Optic Neuritis
Optic neuritis is an inflammatory condition of the optic nerve that usually develops right before a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The disorder causes the eyes to move in an improper way and is typically reoccurring.
- The problem causes severe and intense headaches as it spreads to muscle tissues around the eyes.
- Common symptoms of the condition include changes in color perception, numbness, blurry vision and visual misconceptions.
Treatment for optic neuritis involves reducing inflammation in the tissues surrounding the eyes with steroids and well as the reducing pain.
- Cranial Nerve Palsies
The sense of vision is a result of several cranial nerves that stem from the brain. However when inflammation, injury or compression of these nerves occurs, the result is a condition called cranial nerve palsy, which can affect and change vision.
- When circulation is affected by conditions such as diabetes, and blood supply to the eyes becomes erratic, it can lead to cranial nerve palsies.
- Along with producing severe headaches, the condition also causes the eyes to feel extremely painful.
- Common symptoms of cranial nerve palsies are dropping eyelids, double vision and changes in pupil size.
Treatment of cranial nerve palsies involves getting professional diagnosis to check for signs of a brain tumor or stroke as well as resolving the underlying cause of the problem.
- Tension Headache
As the most common type, tension headaches feel the most “normal” and are a major cause of headaches behind the eyes. While it is not certain what causes tension headaches to develop, lifestyle habits such as being dehydrated, missing meals, leading a stressful life and poor posture have all been linked to the problem.
- Tension headaches feature a pulling sensation that many compare to the feeling of a rubber band wrapped around the head.
- The constant pain of this type of headache is typically brought on by overuse or injury of the neck and the fatigue that generally follows.
- It is common for tension headaches to take anywhere from half an hour to several days to go away, however they are not usually severe enough to prevent daily activities.
Ordinary painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol are the recommended treatment for tension headaches along with drinking more water, getting enough sleep and reducing stress levels. Applying a heat or ice pack to the base of the head and neck can also provide some relief.
Hormonal fluctuations are closely linked with the development of headaches, particularly in women, who experience migraines and other severe headaches during their period and menstrual cycle.
- Along with menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and taking certain medications and contraceptive pills influence the hormone levels in the female body that can trigger headaches.
- Blood vessels in the brain can be affected by hormone fluctuations and mediated dilation that can aggravate headaches due to their contraction.
To reduce the instance of menstrual cycle hormone headaches, it is best to have a consistent sleep and eating schedule and practice stress reduction techniques on a regular basis.
The following are additional treatment options for headaches behind the eyes.
- Manual Eye Exercises – Doctors often recommend and administer eye exercises with manual therapy to control the pain of headaches behind the eyes, particularly if the problem is concentrated in one specific eye and results in a tension headache.
- Lay back on a flat surface.
- Locate the base of the skull with the thumbs before leaning back into them so that the thumbs press into the base of the skull.
- Stay in this position for as long as possible without feeling additional discomfort while applying constant pressure with the thumbs.
- To increase blood circulation, breathe deeply while performing this exercise.
Note: Only trace the side of the skull where the pain is located if the headache is concentrated behind a single eye.
- Therapeutic Treatments and Remedies – There are several therapeutic treatments and remedies that are effective for easing and eliminating the pain caused by headaches behind the eyes. This includes options such as chiropractic therapy, relaxation techniques as well as massage therapy and acupuncture, which are recommended for individuals who suffer with cluster headaches.
A common remedy for headaches that stem from regular sinus congestion involves using steam to breakup and remove the accumulation of mucus with inhalation treatments. Visiting a licensed optician is another solution if the issue behind the headaches stems from a vision related problem.
- Over-The-Counter Medications – A helpful remedy for relieving the pain of headaches behind the eyes is over-the-counter (OTC) medication, with a wide variety of options available such as products that contain additives like caffeine as well as Ibuprofen, Aleve and Tylenol.
Pain medications with anti-inflammatory properties help to ease discomfort by reducing the amount of swelling in eye muscles as well as relaxing the surrounding tissues. Decongestants help to ease headache pain by minimizing the pressure caused by inflamed sinuses.
It is best to describe the kind of headache being experienced to a pharmacist or physician who can recommend a specific product to resolve the problem. However, if several days pass and the headache persists, see a doctor for an in-office visit immediately. They will check for additional symptoms and screen for high blood pressure before suggesting an OTC medication that will not make the condition worse, or providing a prescription for a stronger medication to ease a chronic headache.
- Physical Exercise – Another effective method of managing the pain caused by headaches behind the eyes is exercise that requires mild to moderate exertion. Endorphins, which are natural pain killers, are chemicals produced by the body during exercise. They have a comparable pain relieving effect to morphine.
- Avoid Trigger Foods and Substances – For individuals with sensitive systems, it is best to stop taking substances that are known to trigger and aggravate headaches. This includes items that negatively affect circulation such as tobacco products and alcohol, blood pressure raising items such as excessive sodium and food that contains monosodium glutamate, nitrates and other types of preservatives, which can increase the feeling of tension and make headaches more severe.
Food coloring, processed meats and other foods, frozen food items and foods that contain high levels of plant estrogens such as soy-based products are all commonly linked to the development of migraine and cluster headaches. If taking oral contraceptives contributes to the development of headaches, consult with your physician about lowering the dosage to assist with pain management.