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Eye Pain and Migraines

Updated on May 14, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Jessica Wolpert

Eye pain is a common symptom of migraine headaches. More than 3,000 MyMigraineTeam members have reported eye pain as a symptom. Eye pain can take different forms, but whatever form it takes, it can be one of the most excruciating parts of experiencing migraine headache. “When migraine pains get to the eyes, they are some of the worst!” one member said. Avoiding migraine triggers — and finding ways to soothe eye pain when migraine does occur — can significantly improve your quality of life.

What Does Eye Pain in Migraine Feel Like?

Some MyMigraineTeam members report sharp pains behind the eye. “Today started with a stabbing pain behind my left eye and was downhill from there.” Others describe pain that radiates around the eye area, sometimes spreading from other areas of the face, such as the side of the head. According to one member, ”My eyes, eye sockets, temples, and the base of my skull throb.”

Migraines can also cause eyelid swelling, droopy eyelid, and tears. (Eyelid swelling, a runny nose, and teary eyes can also be symptoms of a similar headache disorder — cluster headaches — although cluster headaches are generally shorter than migraines and cause restlessness and agitation.)

It’s important to note that the eye pain that you experience during migraine is not the same as an ocular migraine. While the term “ocular” refers to the eye, an ocular migraine is a migraine symptom during which a person experiences visual disturbances, such as flashing lights, or experiences vision loss. These visual disturbances aren’t necessarily accompanied by pain.

What Causes Eye Pain During Migraines?

Changes in hormone levels, such as serotonin and estrogen, may trigger migraine pain by causing contractions in blood vessels. Changes in estrogen levels may also make facial nerves — like the nerves around the eye — more sensitive. Women experience fluctuating estrogen levels, and they are more likely than men to experience migraines.

People who experience chronic migraines may also have differences in their trigeminal system, which controls many facial movements, including eye movement. These differences cause nerve overactivity, with nerve becoming hypersensitive and creating migraine eye pain. The eyes may be especially sensitive to nerve differences because they are more exposed than other body parts. The cornea (the clear outer layer of the eye, which covers the iris and pupil) contains trigeminal nerve endings, but it is only five cells apart from the surface of the body. Even small amounts of pressure or tiny irritants can cause tremendous eye pain during a migraine attack.

Triggers for Eye Pain

Some of the common triggers for migraines and the accompanying eye pain are stress, flashing lights, poor sleep, loud noises, and changes in weather. One MyMigraineTeam member said, “The only trigger I can identify so far is rain. Every darn time!”

Food sensitivities can also cause migraines. The most common food triggers include aged cheese, nuts and nut butters, tomatoes, chocolate, caffeine, and onions and garlic. Certain food additives, such as artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and nitrates (a preservative usually found in processed meats) also can trigger migraines.

MyMigraineTeam members report a variety of food sensitivities that can bring on migraines and eye pain. Many members find that their food triggers change with age, and that they have to go through a process of trial and error to eliminate foods that cause migraines. According to one member, “Peanut butter was never a trigger. Then suddenly I got a migraine every time I ate it, so I have avoided it for about 10 years. I love it, so I have slowly been adding it back in and it is not triggering.”

Alcohol sensitivity can also cause migraines. “Between the rain and a thimbleful of champagne and a few sips of chardonnay, I was sick,” a MyMigraineTeam member said.

How Do MyMigraineTeam Members Treat Eye Pain?

Lying down in a dark, quiet room is a time-tested way to treat migraine symptoms, including eye pain. Applying heat to the affected area using a warm compress or mask can help treat eye pain. “I tried a heat-activated, warming eye mask, which has eased a little pain,” reported one MyMigraineTeam member.

Ice can also help numb the face and reduce eye pain. One member recommends frozen peas, “as they allow the ice pack to form to the face.” Others have found “ice hats” or “ice helmets” — fleece hats that have pockets that hold ice packs — helpful. These hats allow you to place multiple ice packs snugly against the affected areas. “Holding an ice pack isn’t the best! Not much helps me, but this item is well worth the price!” one MyMigraineTeam member said.

MyMigraineTeam members use essential oils, such as lavender oil and peppermint oil, to ease eye pain. “When I am having a migraine I do use Japanese peppermint oil on the base of my head, neck, and shoulders. It gets quite hot, but it sometimes relieves pain,” a member said.

To avoid skin irritation, members suggest using an essential oil diffuser or mixing an essential oil with a carrier oil, such as almond or coconut oil. Members also report that CBD oil is useful for facial pain. It’s an oil containing cannabidiol, a chemical compound derived from the hemp plant. Some members use CBD oil topically or breathe it in, using a cloth or vape pen. ”I rub the oil on my temples and put some on a cloth and breathe it in during the migraine,” one member said. Others take CBD-oil capsules. It’s important to check with your doctor before using CBD oil, as it can interact with other medications you are taking.

Some members find that using a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit helps ease eye and face pain. The TENS unit is placed on the surface of the skin. It sends electrical signals to disrupt the pain signals that nerves send out. According to one MyMigraineTeam member, “I have used the TENS unit for a couple of weeks. I no longer have trigeminal pain 24/7 and have averaged one migraine a week.”

More Tips for Soothing Eye Pain

Many migraine treatments focus on preventing migraine attacks, but there are options to soothe headache pain — including eye pain — once a migraine starts. Over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen, are the first line of defense for migraine eye pain and all migraine symptoms.

If over-the-counter remedies aren’t enough, triptans such as Imitrex (sumatriptan), Amerge (naratriptan), Zolmig (zolmitriptan), Maxalt (rizatriptan), and Relpax (eletriptan) can help ease migraine symptoms like eye pain when taken early in a migraine episode. These prescription drugs work by stimulating the brain to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin. The extra serotonin reduces inflammation and constricts blood vessels that dilate during a migraine attack. Triptans are available as pills or as nasal sprays. Triptans can be combined with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and Aleve (naproxen sodium). Ergot-derived drugs, such as Migranal (dihydroergotamine), can also help calm blood vessels during a migraine headache, but they have been found to be less effective than triptans.

It is important to note that triptans are not the best treatment for everyone with migraine. Because triptans cause the vasoconstriction of blood vessels, they are not recommended for people with coronary artery disease, uncontrolled high blood pressure, or a history of heart attack or stroke. Talk to your doctor about which treatments will be the best for you, given your health history.

By joining MyMigraineTeam, members gain a community of people living with migraine who understand the condition’s challenges, including migraine eye pain. Members support each other and share ways they have found to manage migraine symptoms.

Have you experienced migraine eye pain? How do you manage it? Share your experiences in the comments below or on MyMigraineTeam.

Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Jessica Wolpert works to empower patients through the creation of content that illuminates treatments' effects on the everyday lives of people with chronic conditions. Learn more about her here.

A MyMigraineTeam Member said:

The glasses I bought at Costco have blue light filter lenses, supposedly to block computer screen light. I stll get headaches!

posted about 1 month ago

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