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Can Dry Eyes Cause Headaches?

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A woman sitting at her computer holding her glasses and rubbing hey eyes and forehead.

Many people deal with dry eyes daily. But as uncomfortable as dry eyes are, they can become much more frustrating when accompanied by a headache. When your eyes are burning and your head is pounding, you might wonder if your dry eyes caused a headache.

Dry eyes and headaches share some similar causes, like underlying medical conditions or environmental factors. While one condition doesn’t typically cause the other, they can often make symptoms worse for each other. 

What Is Dry Eye Disease?

Dry eye disease is a lot more common than most people think. It’s believed that at least 30% of Canadians experience dry eyes at some point in their lives. But what is dry eye disease exactly?

Your eyes are covered by an extremely thin film of tears. These tears are spread evenly over the eye’s surface every time you blink and are responsible for flushing away contaminating particles while hydrating the eye. They do all of this while providing a smooth and clear surface that allows light to pass through unobstructed.

This tear film is made of three layers:

  • The mucus layer keeps the tears attached to the surface of the eye.
  • The watery aqueous layer helps protect and nourish the eye.
  • The oily outer layer prevents the tear from evaporating.

When your tear film is stable, it keeps the eye protected. However, what if it’s unstable? An imbalance in the tear film, whether due to the quantity or quality of the tears, can lead to the tear evaporating too quickly. This leaves the eye unprotected, inflamed, and irritated. When this situation arises, it’s called dry eye disease.

The Symptoms of Dry Eye Disease

When your tear film isn’t balanced properly, you’ll likely notice almost immediate inflammation. This often feels like something is burning in your eye, or someone has thrown a few grains of sand under your eyelid. This is one of the most obvious symptoms of dry eye disease, but other signs can include:

  • Visible redness or a watery discharge
  • Blurry vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Overly watery eyes, where the eye floods itself with poor-quality tears

Overall, these symptoms can cause significant discomfort. It may be harder to focus on work, and enjoying your hobbies may cause you more irritation than pleasure. This becomes much more problematic when headaches are involved.

A woman holding her phone and rubbing her left eye.

The Link Between Dry Eyes & Headaches

It’s not unusual to experience dry eyes and headaches simultaneously. However, the extent of this relationship isn’t fully understood. While people who experience chronic migraines are much more likely to develop dry eyes, this could be due to several potential reasons.

When your tear film is unstable, it doesn’t provide as smooth a surface as when it’s healthy. When light passes through, it can scatter, potentially affecting how it refracts as it enters the eye. This can make it more difficult for the brain to process what it’s seeing, putting additional strain on your visual system and possibly leading to headaches.

On the other hand, dry eyes increase inflammation in the area around your eyes. This can put additional strain on surrounding areas—like the brain—which can also lead to a headache.

Regardless of the exact cause, there does remain a link between the two. Both dry eye disease and headaches have similar symptoms, like inflammation and light sensitivity. When one flares up, it could trigger the other, leading to the correlation.

However, a study performed in 2015 found that some patients who experienced both chronic migraines and chronic dry eye disease had a structural difference in their eyes. The nerves in the corneas of those who did not suffer from chronic migraines differed from those who did. 

While this link isn’t fully understood, the results were simple—people with migraines are significantly more likely to develop dry eyes.

Can Your Optometrist Treat Dry Eye Disease?

There is good news, though. In most situations, your optometrist can treat your dry eyes and bring you lasting relief. Our team at River Heights Eye Care is here to help—but finding relief could be as simple as making some adjustments at home.

When looking for relief from dry eye disease, it helps to:

  • Use prescription eye drops or ointments as recommended by your optometrist.
  • Use warm compresses to stimulate the areas around the eye and promote healthy tear production.
  • Use eye masks while sleeping to help keep your eyes lubricated.
  • Follow a balanced diet, or take supplements to encourage healthy tear production.
  • Avoid tobacco products, as they can inflame the eye.

It can also help to make environmental changes to reduce additional strain on your eyes. If you constantly use a fan, aim it away from your face to prevent drying out your eyes. It can also help to use a humidifier in rooms you spend a lot of time in.

Get Help for Your Dry Eyes

If you find you’re dealing with dry eyes, visit River Heights Eye Care. Our team can perform a comprehensive eye exam to find the cause of your dry eyes and give you a proper recommendation for treatment. Don’t continue to suffer from dry eyes—book an appointment with us today!

Written by Shazeen Manji

Dr. Shazeen Manji was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, and attended the University of Alberta, where she completed her Bachelor of Science degree. She then went on to earn her optometry degree at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, where she graduated with honours. Dr. Manji received her training in a vast array of clinical settings, including private practices and Veterans Affairs hospitals, where she focused on pediatrics and contact lenses. Though she enjoys all aspects of private practice, Dr. Manji has a particular interest in ocular disease and contact lenses. She completed her ocular disease externship at the Wilmington V.A. Hospital and has completed an advanced studies course in contact lenses, giving her unique insight into fitting specialty contact lenses. In 2019, Dr. Manji purchased River Heights Eye Care where she is now practicing.
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