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Eye strain is an uncomfortable symptom caused by a variety of activities. Spending extended periods of time in front of a screen, reading, or driving can all trigger eye strain.
Eye strain can lead to a headache, though not as often as many people think. Other types of eye problems — such as dry eye, injury to the eye, degenerative eye disease, uncorrected nearsightedness and farsightedness, and eye infection — can also cause headaches.
The exact causes of different types of headaches are difficult to identify, though there is a clear connection between headaches and eye problems. Most types of headaches — including migraines, tension, and cluster headaches — produce symptoms of eye problems. Likewise, eye strain is an identified trigger for some types of headaches.
Treatment of headaches is focused on reducing their severity and frequency. Prescription and over-the-counter medications are usually effective for treating headache pain. For people who regularly experience headaches, lifestyle modifications play an important preventative role.
Chronic eye strain can lead to chronic headaches. While eye strain does not cause permanent damage to your vision or eyes, it can lead to uncomfortable symptoms that can interfere with the quality of your daily life. Fortunately, there are various solutions available for chronic eye strain.
The best way to tell if your headache is caused by eye strain is to eliminate the factors in your life that lead to eye strain. If your headaches go away, you can confidently link them to eye strain. If your headaches persist, worsen, or present with new symptoms, it is time to consult your doctor about potential causes and treatment options.
What Is Eye Strain?
Eye strain is best thought of as a symptom rather than a condition, explains the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). It has different meanings for different people. Certain activities will cause eye strain in some people, while others are unaffected.
Signs of Eye Strain
If you experience the following, you may be suffering from eye strain:
- Tired eyes
- Watery eyes
- Blurred vision
- Sore eyes
- Eye itchiness
- Dry eye
- Double vision
- Sensitivity to light
- Shoulder and neck pain
- Problems with concentration
- Burning eyes
Causes of Eye Strain
Many different activities can cause eye strain that then leads to other conditions, such as headaches.
People who work in front of a screen for extended periods of time are at risk for experiencing eye strain. Likewise, reading, driving for hours, or being exposed to hot or cold air blowing in your face can strain the eyes. Essentially, any activities that require focused, up-close work can result in eye strain over time.
Some people experience eye strain as a result of wearing an incorrect glasses prescription or working in too little or too much light.
Can Eye Strain Cause Headaches?
Eye strain is a common condition that is one of many possible causes of headaches. Other types of eye problems can also lead to a headache.
However, the American Migraine Association (AMA) explains that eye strain is commonly overrated as a cause of headache. Eye problems can cause discomfort in the eye that reflect referred pain from a headache.
Eye problems associated with headaches include:
- Injury to the cornea.
- Degenerative disease of the cornea.
- Eye infection.
- Dry eyes.
- Eye inflammation.
- Tumor behind the eye.
- Acute attack of angle-closure glaucoma.
- Optic nerve conditions.
- Giant cell arteritis (temporal arteritis).
- Ocular ischemic syndrome.
- Uncorrected nearsightedness or farsightedness.
According to AMA, most people with headaches do not have an eye condition that causes their headaches. Most headaches are caused by a primary headache disorder, such as a migraine or tension-type headache.
It is possible for headaches to be caused by any of the above eye conditions. Further medical attention from an ophthalmologist is warranted if this is suspected.
Headaches & Eye Problems
Headaches and eye problems are often closely related. Headaches can be both the cause and result of various eye problems.
The exact causes of many types of headaches are unknown, though many different triggers have been identified.
Different types of primary headaches have distinct links to eye problems.
- Migraine: Often accompanied by visual disturbances, migraines can cause severe light sensitivity and pain behind the eyes. They may be caused by exposure to bright lights that strain the eyes, among other factors.
- Cluster: This is a severe and recurring type of headache. Cluster headaches cause intense burning and piercing pain behind or around the eyes. They can also cause watery eyes, swollen eyelids, and sensitivity to light and sound.
- Tension: One of the most common types of headaches, tension headaches can cause a feeling of pressure behind the eyes as well as sensitivity to light. Eye strain is a potential trigger of tension headaches.
Unfortunately, the exact cause of each of these types of headaches is unclear. They are often due to a combination of factors.
Eye problems are rarely the direct cause of a headache. They are more often symptoms of a headache.
Headache Treatment Options
Treatment of headaches is aimed at reducing the severity and frequency of their occurrence. Because it is usually hard to identify the exact cause of the headache, the symptoms are targeted.
When you experience a headache, there are many at-home and over-the-counter treatment options for you to try.
At-home treatment options for common headaches include:
- Taking over-the-counter painkillers.
- Resting in a dark and quiet space.
- Placing an ice pack or cold towel on your forehead.
- Using a warm compress.
- Massaging your temples, neck, or shoulders.
- Taking muscle relaxants.
- Drinking lots of water.
Each type of headache may respond differently to treatments. Effective treatment for one person may be entirely ineffective for the next ,so it is important to experiment with different treatment approaches until you are able to get relief from your headache pain.
In addition to over-the-counter medications, prescription medications are available for severe and recurring headaches.
How to Prevent Eye Strain & Eye-Related Headaches
If you are prone to headaches, you may consider lifestyle modifications that may reduce your chances of developing headaches.
- Stay well hydrated.
- Aim to reduce stress.
- Find ways to manage anxiety and depression.
- Try acupuncture.
- Get more and better sleep.
- Exercise regularly.
- Maintain good sitting and standing posture.
Each type of headache may respond differently to treatments. Effective treatment for one person may be entirely ineffective for the next, so it is important to experiment with different treatment approaches until you are able to get relief from your headache pain.
In addition to over-the-counter medications and lifestyle modifications, prescription medications are available for severe and recurring headaches.
How to Address Chronic Eye Strain & Headaches
When long-lasting eye strain leads to chronic headaches, it can be very disruptive to your daily life.
Fortunately, eye strain does not cause permanent damage or injury to the eye, and the condition can often be treated relatively easily. By making simple changes to your working, reading, and driving environments, you can likely address the issues that are straining your eyes and causing headaches.
AAO offers these tips to address chronic eye strain:
- Confirm your glasses or contacts are the correct prescription for your vision needs.
- Use sunglasses when outside in bright light.
- Use artificial tears to address dry eyes..
- Adjust your computer screen so you must gaze slightly downward at it.
- Use a humidifier to improve dry air quality.
- Wear computer glasses to reduce the impact of blue light.
If you continue to experience eye strain and headaches after trying a variety of adjustments, it might be a good idea to see an ophthalmologist. Through an eye exam, your eye doctor can examine your eye muscles, assess for underlying eye or health problems, and confirm you are wearing the proper eyeglass or contact lens prescription. They may be able to identify the cause of your eye strain during this exam.
Is Your Headache Caused by Eye Strain?
To tell if your headache is caused by eye strain or not, remove the triggers that are straining your eyes. If your headache dissipates once the triggers that cause eye strain are removed, your headache was likely caused by eye strain. If you have systematically removed factors that cause eye strain and you still experience severe headaches, it’s time to see a doctor.
You should see your doctor about your headaches if they:
- Occur frequently or regularly.
- Are severe.
- Come on quickly.
- Are persistent or worsen.
- Interfere with the activities of daily living.
- Cause you to take over-the-counter medication more frequently than two days per week.
- Don’t respond to over-the-counter pain relievers.
- Are caused by bending down, sneezing, coughing, exercise, or sexual activity.
- Present with new symptoms.
- Are accompanied by certain symptoms, such as lightheadedness, fever, confusion, numbness, continual vomiting, breathing problems, slurred speech, diarrhea, stiff neck, vision issues, or weakness.
A doctor can identify headache triggers and develop a treatment plan that addresses the underlying issues. With assistance, you can finally experience effective headache relief.
Do I Need to Have My Eyes Checked if My Head Hurts? (February 2016). American Migraine Foundation.
Eye Strain: How to Prevent Tired Eyes. (February 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Headache Treatment and Headache Relief. Stanford Health Care.
Types of Headaches. Stanford Health Care.
When to See a Healthcare Professional. National Headache Foundation.
Computer Vision Syndrome. Cedars Sinai.