UAB Medicine News


Chronic Eyestrain Headaches Signal the Need for an Eye Exam

Headache and Vision Issues

Headaches have many causes, but frequent headaches that happen after a long period of computer screen time, reading, or driving may indicate a vision problem. For anyone experiencing symptoms of eyestrain, a comprehensive eye exam by a trained ophthalmologist is the best way to diagnose the cause of the discomfort.

The most common types of headaches are tension headaches or migraines. These primary types of headaches are rarely associated with vision disorders. However, if a headache frequently occurs after an extended period of doing a task that requires concentrated vision, eyestrain is the likely cause. Eyestrain is a common condition, especially now that computer screens and other digital devices are a part of daily life and work. Use of digital devices for a long, uninterrupted period is the main cause of “computer vision syndrome,” or digital eyestrain.

Eyestrain Symptoms
  • Aching or burning eyes
  • Watery, itchy, or dry eyes
  • Eye fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache around eyes and/or behind eyes
  • Greater sensitivity to light
  • Stiffness and pain in neck and shoulders

An occasional eyestrain headache usually is not cause for concern, but if the pain and associated symptoms become chronic or severe, then an underlying condition may be the source. Only a comprehensive eye exam will reveal those conditions and how they should be treated, says Michael Callahan, MD, an ophthalmologist at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital.

“When anyone is using their eyes for driving, reading, or watching a movie, for example, then a headache that results from that activity usually signals a need for eyeglasses or some type of vision aid,” Dr. Callahan says. “But eyestrain headaches could also be alerting us to iritis, an inflammatory condition usually caused by exposure to pollen. We also might see certain infections or detect something more serious, such as glaucoma. We will know about those things only through a thorough eye exam. Simply screening for correct vision is not enough.”

Looking Deeper

Dr. Callahan notes that in addition to diagnosing vision problems, an eye exam may detect other serious medical conditions.

“The eye is one of the few places at which an ophthalmologist can actually see into the body, Dr. Callahan says. “For instance, a patient with meningitis will often have swollen optic nerves. A child with a sudden, severe headache raises all kinds of red flags. We first consider migraines as the cause. However, if one of the cranial nerves that controls the eye muscle is not functioning properly, then this is an emergency.”

The detection of many serious conditions, such as inflammation in the body caused by a brain tumor, optic nerve swelling, or blood vessel inflammation (temporal arteritis), will alert ophthalmologists to refer patients to specialists, depending on what conditions are observed during the eye exam.

For most patients, eyestrain headaches signal only a need to treat common vision focusing conditions, such as farsightedness and nearsightedness. That’s reason enough to get a comprehensive eye exam. But if something more serious is causing the headaches, the exam is an important step in diagnosing that condition.

Click here to learn more about eye conditions treated at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital, find a Callahan Eye Clinic near you, or schedule an exam.

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