Learn about the various conditions within the eye that contribute to specific types of headaches.

According to the World Health Organization, headache disorders are among the most common of the human nervous system. Headaches cause pain, disability and diminished quality of life and also involve significant financial cost to individuals, employers and insurers.

Because headaches have a vast array of causes, the classification, diagnosis and treatment of headaches can be complex for both patients and physicians. Health care providers may need to look beyond their own specialties to get patients on the path to proper treatment.

Health conditions that can produce headaches — and secondarily affect the eyes and visual system — include multiple sclerosis, migraines, spinal cord disorders, temporomandibular joint disorder, hypoglycemia, tension, dehydration and lack of adequate sleep, just to name a few. Ever-increasing electronic media consumption in educational, occupational and recreational settings can be very taxing on our eyes, producing both visual and physical symptoms —including headaches.

Most of my patients come seeking help with focusing issues — what eye doctors call ametropia or refractive error — which include farsightedness (hyperopia), nearsightedness (myopia), astigmatism and age-related blurry near vision (presbyopia). However, the second most common complaint that prompts patients to seek care in my practice is headaches. While some of these patients have both blurry vision and headaches, many experience vision-related headache and eyestrain issues in the presence of good visual acuity.

Headaches can be a major component of asthenopia, a condition in which the eyes tire easily, leading to pain in or around the eyes, blurry vision, dizziness, nausea and headaches. Inherent weakness within the eye’s focusing muscle, called the ciliary muscle, can cause optical asthenopia. Various conditions of the extraocular muscles that control eye movements can produce mechanical asthenopia. In cases of extreme visual demand, even individuals with normal vision and mechanical alignment can experience asthenopia, such as in cases of computer use complex (aka computer vision syndrome).

The severity, frequency and management of these symptoms are based on many factors, including refractive error, age, time spent performing visual tasks, computer workstation setup and sensitivity to natural or artificial light.

Patients who are likely to respond to optical correction are usually those who report headaches that are located frontally, temporally or around the eye(s). They usually report the onset as later in the day and also that symptoms worsen as the day goes on, often as a function of visual demand. In addition to custom corrective lenses, optometrists can educate patients on habits that will improve their endurance and productivity while eliminating eyestrain. They also have expertise in many cases requiring medical management of headaches.

While there are many advantages to life in the present day, some aspects of modern life can be a headache — literally. If you are suffering with headaches and are ready for relief, a visit to your optometrist can be a good place to start.