Headaches and your eyes

How a Headache Can Affect Your Eyes and Vision

By Troy Bedinghaus, OD  Medically reviewed by Diana Apetauerova, MD on September 08, 2020

Have you ever had a headache that affected your vision? Sometimes a headache can cause pain around your eyes, even though the headache is not associated with a vision problem. On the other hand, a headache may be a sign that your eyes are changing and that it’s time to schedule an eye exam. Although headaches are rarely a medical emergency, a severe one should not be ignored or minimized.

headaches and vision
Verywell / Luyi Wang

Headaches That Affect Vision

Vision problems can sometimes be the consequence of a headache. This is especially true with migraines and cluster headaches.

Migraine Headache

A migraine headache can cause intense pain in and around your eyes. A migraine aura resembling flashing lights, a prismatic rainbow of lights or a zig-zag pattern of shimmering lights often precedes the actual headache. The aura typically lasts around 20 minutes.

Some people who experience a migraine aura never develop the actual headache, making the diagnosis of the visual disturbances difficult.1 Migraines can also cause tingling or numbness of the skin. People with severe migraines may experience nausea, vomiting, and light sensitivity. Medications, certain foods, smells, loud noises, and bright lights can all trigger a migraine headache.An Overview of Migraine With Aura

Cluster Headache

Cluster headaches are severe headaches that occur in clusters and typically cause pain around the eyes. The pain often radiates down the neck to include the shoulder. Other symptoms include:

Cluster headaches may occur daily for several months at a time followed by a long period with no headaches. It is not known what causes cluster headaches, but they are clearly one of the most severe headaches one can experience.

Vision Problems That Cause Headaches

On the flip side, vision problems can cause headaches when you either overwork the eyes or struggle to maintain focus. By correcting the vision problem, you can often resolve the headache.

Eye Strain

Simply overusing the focusing muscles of your eyes can cause eye strain and headaches. This is an increasing problem in our high tech world

Small-screen texting and web browsing can easily cause eye strain, in part because the words and images on a computer screen are made up of pixels and do not have well-defined edges. The eyes cannot easily focus on pixels, so they must work harder even if an image is in high-resolution.2 When the eye muscles become fatigued, a headache can develop around or behind the eyes.


Adults and children with uncorrected farsightedness (hypermetropia) will often experience a frontal headache (also known as a “brow ache”). If you are farsighted, you may find it difficult to focus on nearby objects, resulting in eye strain and headaches. As you subconsciously compensate for your farsightedness by focusing harder, the headaches can become worse and more frequent.


Around the age of 40, people begin to find it difficult to focus on nearby objects. Near point activities, such as reading or threading a needle, are often difficult to perform because of blurring. This is an unavoidable condition known as presbyopia that affects everyone at some point. Headaches develop as you try to compensate for the lack of focusing power. Reading glasses can often relieve the underlying eye strain.

Occupations requiring close-up work, exposure to sunlight for longer periods of time, and farsightedness were the most common risk factors for presbyopia.3Presbyopia: Close-Up Vision Loss and What to Do About It

Giant Cell Arteritis

Also known as temporal arteritis, giant cell arteritis (GCA) is an inflammation of the lining of the arteries that run along the temple. GCA usually creates a headache that causes constant, throbbing pain in the temples. Vision symptoms occur as a result of a loss of blood supply to the optic nerve and retina. Other symptoms include:

  • Fever, fatigue and muscle aches
  • Scalp tenderness
  • Pain while chewing
  • Decreased vision​

GCA is considered a medical emergency. If left untreated, the condition may cause vision loss in one or both eyes. A delayed diagnosis is the most common cause of GCA-associated vision loss.42:18

What Is a Retinal Migraine?

Acute Angle-Closure Glaucoma 

Acute angle-closure glaucoma (AACG) is a rare type of glaucoma that causes a sudden onset of symptoms, including headaches. Eye pressure rises quickly in AACG causing increased eye redness, eye pain, and cloudy vision. A mid-dilated pupil (in which pupil dilation is sluggish and incomplete) is one of the most important diagnostic features of AACG.5

Ocular Ischemic Syndrome

Ocular ischemic syndrome (OIS) is a condition that develops due to a chronic lack of blood flow to the eye. This condition often causes a headache, decreased vision, and a host of other signs, including cataracts, glaucoma, iris neovascularization (the development of new weak blood vessels in the iris), and retinal hemorrhage. White spots on the retina indicate a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the retinal tissue.2:18

What Is a Retinal Migraine?

Herpes Zoster

Also known as shingles, herpes zoster is known for causing headaches, vision changes and severe pain around the head and eye. Herpes zoster is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus and affects a single side of the body. A headache usually precedes an outbreak of painful skin blisters.

Herpes zoster around the eyes is serious and requires immediate medical attention (including antiviral medication) to prevent damage to the ocular nerves and eyes. Complications include corneal clouding, glaucoma, and optic nerve atrophy (deterioration).6

Pseudotumor Cerebri

Pseudotumor cerebri is a condition that occurs when the pressure within the skull increases for no apparent reason. For this reason, pseudotumor cerebri is also referred to as Idiopathic Intracranial hypertension (“idiopathic” meaning of unknown origin and “hypertension” meaning high blood pressure).

Pseudotumor cerebri often causes a headache and changes in vision. If left untreated, pseudotumor cerebri can lead to vision loss as the pressure places strain on the optic nerves. Fortunately, while 65% to 85% of people with pseudotumor cerebri will experience visual impairment, the condition is usually transient and will normalize when the hypertension is controlled.

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