Headaches behind the eyes are common, and they may result from underlying health issues ranging from eye strain to migraine.
Pain behind the eyes can affect one or both sides, and it may occur with light sensitivity and other types of discomfort. A doctor can identify the cause of a headache behind the eyes and recommend the best course of treatment.
Focusing and refocusing on a screen for long periods can cause eye strain, which can also result from problems with vision.
Fatigue from eye strain can cause pain behind one or both eyes. A person may also experience pain in their eyes or blurry vision.
Some underlying health issues that cause eye strain include:
- optic neuritis, which is inflammation of the optic nerve.
- scleritis, which is severe inflammation of the white part of the eye
- glaucoma, a disease that affects the optic nerve
- Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder
Migraine is a very common condition, affecting about 12% of people in the United States.
A migraine headache can cause extreme pain behind the eyes, and it can last for up to 72 hours.
In addition to a migraine headache, a person may experience:
- eye pain
- sensitivity to light and sound
- mood changes
- impaired vision
While doctors are unsure what, precisely, causes migraine, they recognize several common triggers. These are not the same for everyone.
Migraine triggers may be:
- emotional, such as stress or anxiety
- dietary, such as chocolate or alcohol
- physical, such as a lack of sleep or poor posture
- hormonal, such as menstruation
- environmental, such as strong smells, smoke, or flickering lights
- medication-related, involving sleeping pills or hormone therapies, for example
Sinusitis is inflammation or congestion of the sinuses. This can create pressure, causing pain behind the eyes.
It can also cause pain and pressure in other parts of the face, such as the forehead and cheeks.
Some common symptoms of sinusitis include:
- nasal congestion
- pain that worsens when the person is lying down
- aching in the upper teeth
Sinusitis could result from bacteria, fungi, or a virus becoming trapped in the sinuses because of congestion. The congestion may have stemmed from allergies or a respiratory infection, for example.
When a person experiences between one and eight short, very painful headaches over the course of a day, they have had a cluster headache.
Cluster headaches often occur in cycles — a person may experience regular cluster headaches for a few weeks or months, followed by a period of relief.
These headaches are extremely painful and occur on one side of the head. Often, additional symptoms develop on the same side as the headache. These symptoms can include:
- a stuffy or runny nostril
- a teary or red eye
Doctors are unsure of the cause of cluster headaches, and there has not been extensive research, though these headaches are not uncommon.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, and they are more common in females than males.
Some people experience tension headaches one or two times per month, while others experience them more often. If this continues for 3 months or longer, doctors classify these headaches as chronic.
Tension headaches usually cause pain behind the eyes and a feeling of pressure around the forehead.
Also, a tension headache may cause tenderness in the scalp. The pain of a tension headache may be dull, occur in the forehead, and extend to the neck.
Tension headaches develop for a variety of reasons, including:
- cold temperatures
- staring at a screen for a long time
- driving long distances
- muscle contractions in the neck or head
Avoiding the various factors below can often help relieve or prevent pain behind the eyes:
- loud noises
- strong perfume and other odors
- alcohol use
- changes in hormones
- bright lights
- a lack of sleep
Over-the-counter pain medication can often relieve mild or moderate headaches, but when the pain is severe, prescription medication may be necessary.
A doctor may prescribe antidepressants, to help regulate hormone levels, or muscle relaxants, when another issue is responsible for the pain.
Trying the following things at home can also help:
- limiting or avoiding caffeine
- avoiding alcohol
- refraining from using tobacco products
- exercising regularly
- avoiding processed foods
A person may find relief from a migraine episode by resting in a darkened room. Placing a cool, damp towel over the eyes may help, as well.
Meanwhile, antibiotics are a fairly standard treatment for sinusitis when bacteria are responsible. Nasal decongestant sprays can also help. Do not use these sprays for more than 3–4 days at a time, however, or there is a risk that the nasal passages may swell shut.
People can often relieve eye strain by using the 20-20-20 rule.
Spending long periods looking at computer, phone, or tablet screens can strain the eyes. Using the 20-20-20 rule can help to prevent this problem.