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Your head pain may be sending you clues about your eye health. Here’s what you need to know.
Most headaches are nothing to worry about. They slow you down but eventually go away with little drama. And the relief drill is pretty ho-hum, too—take a couple of OTC pain relievers and ride it out.
But just because your head pain seems run-of-the-mill doesn’t mean it isn’t trying to tell you something about the state of your eye health.
“Occasional headaches happen to everyone, but if you’re getting them more and more often, or you’re picking up on a pattern to your head pain, it’s time to call your doctor, and maybe even your eye doctor,” says neuro-ophthalmologist and headache specialist Rudrani Banik, M.D., associate director of neuro-ophthalmology services at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary at Mount Sinai Hospital.
It’s a two-way street between your eyes and your brain, Dr. Banik explains. Your head pain may illuminate an eye problem, and your eyes or vision may shed light on the source of your agony.
Either way, it’s worth doing some investigative work. In the United States, headaches rank as one of the leading causes of lost workdays, according to the National Institutes of Health. And the World Health Organization reports that one in 20 adults worldwide has a daily or almost daily headache.
Here are a few things common headaches might be telling you about the state of your eye health:
Headache Hint #1: Your Desk Job Isn’t Healthy for Your Eyes
Long stretches of focused work are a known recipe for eyestrain. Painting a masterpiece, getting to the end of a whodunit, or repairing your car’s engine can all push your eyes to their limit. But these days the biggest eyestrain culprit is your computer screen.
There’s even a name for it: computer vision syndrome (CVS). Sore eyes coupled with a headache in the back of your neck, temples, or forehead is the tipoff that that your screen time is causing you grief. At the extreme end, you may even experience some momentary blurred vision along with the pain.
Research conducted on 500 international university students found that 53% of heavy computer users developed CVS headaches. The study appeared in the Annals of Medical and Health Sciences Research.
Short of quitting your day job, the only way to curb CVS headaches is to get serious about better screen habits, says Alicia Pecco, O.D., an optometrist at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.
“Adjust the brightness of your computer screen to closely match the lighting in your work area, pump up the font size, take breaks when you can, and keep artificial tears handy to relieve the dryness that comes from not blinking as much while you’re concentrating on work,” says Dr. Pecco.
Another trick to beat CVS-related headaches and eyestrain: Look up from your screen and focus on something across the room for about 20 seconds. Then, extend your arm and place your thumb in the middle of your line of sight. Alternate focusing on your thumb and at a point across the room five to 10 times. Aim to do this quick exercise a few times a day to get the most benefit.
Also, check your desk setup. In the study of university students, those who placed their screen about 20 inches away from their eyes experienced fewer headaches. And if the screen you’re usually staring at is your phone or a tablet, simply holding it up to face level and about 18 to 20 inches away can make a big difference in your eye and neck comfort, says Dr. Pecco.
Finally, if you’re experiencing CVS headaches often, Dr. Pecco suggests asking your eye doctor if you’re a good candidate for eyeglasses that you’d wear only when doing your computer work.
Computer glasses would have just the right amount of magnifying power to help your eyes adjust between the screen and your keyboard while you’re working.
Headache Hint #2: Your Eyesight Has Changed
Although more than 194 million adults in the United States have corrective eyewear, not all prescriptions are up-to-date or accurate.
And that can cause a pounding headache—particularly above the eyebrows and along your forehead.
“If someone is over- or undercorrected, with eyewear that’s too strong or too weak, they expend extra energy to overaccommodate for the errors,” explains Dr. Pecco.
She estimates that 5% to 10% of the patients she sees each year who come in and either complain about or just casually mention an increase in headaches turn out to have glasses or contacts with the wrong or outdated prescription.
“Your vision isn’t fixed,” she says. “It can change as you get older—even before it’s time for your next eye checkup.”
That’s why it’s important to let your eye doctor know if you’ve noticed anything out of the ordinary with your eyesight. And treat your regular eye exam as high priority.
One more pro tip: If you’ve recently switched from glasses to contact lenses (or vice versa), or have gone from single-vision lenses to bifocals or progressives, you may experience a slight headache in the first day or two as your eyes make the adjustment to the new lenses.
Dr. Pecco says it’s important to ask your eye doctor what to expect after making the switch. And stay in touch with your eye doctor’s office if you have any questions or concerns along the way.
Headache Hint #3: A Migraine Requires Medical Attention
Migraines stand out among the various types of headaches. The constant, throbbing, crushing pain is frequently partnered with a feeling of nausea and fatigue and really can’t be powered through.
The pain is often isolated behind one eye or ear and can last anywhere from four hours to three days. Many migraine sufferers also experience a range of visual symptoms—known as auras—that usually precede the actual pain. No two auras are exactly alike, but Dr. Banik says patients often see flashing lights, wavy lines, shimmering stars, zigzag shapes, or spots of light.
Recent data from the American Migraine Foundation shows that only 5% of migraine sufferers seek and receive adequate treatment. Dr. Banik says that’s probably because many people don’t recognize these headaches for what they are. Not surprising when you consider the enormous variety of migraines.
“Some of my patients have vestibular migraines with dizziness or vertigo, while others have just a visual aura with no head pain. And some experience a ‘light show’ 20 minutes before the pain begins,” says Dr. Banik. “These are all migraines.”
While migraines that are accompanied by auras are common, migraines prompted by visual problems are quite rare.
That’s the good news. Still, both doctors interviewed say that if you experience any visual symptoms that you think are migraine related, it’s important to get checked out by your eye or family doctor quickly.
“Number one, we want to make sure you’re not having a transient ischemic attack [a brief, small stroke] or aneurysm,” says Dr. Pecco. “Additionally, we check to make sure everything looks good with your retina and optic nerve.”
Visual symptoms that set off alarm bells include sudden or short episodes of vision loss or diminished vision, in one or both eyes, and auras always on the same side that wax and wane for 30 to 60 minutes at a time and are not followed by any head pain.
Call your doctor immediately if you’ve experienced either. Something significant could be happening.
Keep a Headache Journal
If you experience frequent headaches, Dr. Banik says you can help your doctor by recording their frequency, intensity, duration, and triggers. Also take note of any accompanying symptoms, such as the visual signs noted above or feelings of nausea or extreme fatigue.
Troubleshooting all the potential causes for headaches requires persistence and awareness, says Dr. Banik. Thankfully, most headaches turn out to be harmless. But it’s good to get to the source of the problem so you can find real relief.
“We rely on input from our eyes to our brain, and then the other way, to carry important information,” she says. “My goal is to make sure everything is in working order.”