Is Your Eye Pain an Eye-mergency?

Written by Dr. David Evans   Last modified on August 6, 2018

I was chatting with one of our writers a few weeks back and he was telling me about a bizarre eye issue he experienced that prompted a visit to the doctor. He woke up one morning with extreme, sudden onset eye pain in the left eye. Something he’d not experienced before. He had light sensitivity issues, red eye and had a stinging sensation when trying to apply drops. Concerned as to what was going on, he managed to get an appointment with an ophthalmologist that morning for an evaluation. Fortunately the issue wasn’t anything serious. But what if it had occurred on a weekend or after hours? He noted that he was admittedly panicked about it before his examination, so it might have prompted him to seek emergency care (even though in hindsight that wouldn’t have been necessary).

It begs the question… If you experience sudden eye pain or other vision problem, how do you know if it’s an emergency?

A recent study published in Ophthalmology evaluated eye-related emergency department visits between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2014. Researchers from the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor found that approximately 23 percent of the patients’ emergency visits were for “non-urgent” ocular conditions. You might consider that to be good news, and to a certain extent it is. But what about the broader impact?

Did you know that visits to the emergency departments are, on average, four times more expensive than regular doctor office visits for comparable conditions? Depending on your insurance coverage, this could mean you’re paying far more than needed out of pocket for an exam. Non-urgent emergency visits can also cause overcrowding in emergency rooms, slowing the ability to respond to real emergencies.

It’s important to point out that this study is not admonishing those people with a non-urgent eye problem who visit an emergency department out of an overabundance of caution. If you experience chronic eye pain or another vision-related issue and are unable to get an appointment quickly with an eye doctor, you should by all means take advantage of emergency services.

One of the key points outlined in the study relates to the need for better education of eye care patients. Ophthalmologists could provide materials in their waiting rooms in the form of videos or brochures. Insurance companies can also place greater emphasis on the need to carry vision insurance so that regular eye care visits can become a part of your healthcare regimen. Patients who undergo routine eye exams have a better sense of their visual health and are therefore potentially less likely to confuse a minor eye issue with an emergency. Similarly, such patients would be better informed to identify when an issue is an emergency. For example, if your eye doctor determines that you are at increased risk for retinal detachment, he/she can discuss with you warning signs and symptoms. A sudden increase of eye floaters or flashes of light could signal a detachment emergency.

The study also evaluated other ways to ease emergency room congestion. One example proposed is to incentivize and encourage eye care practitioners to offer after-hours care to fit better with the working schedules of patients. People who are “less affluent” are more likely to seek emergency care rather than take time off work to meet with a doctor during regular clinic hours. It’s always better to err on the safe side and visit the emergency department if you’re overly concerned about an eye problem and are unable to get an eye doctor appointment quickly. But what this study posits is that there is certainly room for improvement in making sure that patients are better informed about eye health.

If you’re interested in reading more about the study, you can check it out here.

You should also check out our slideshow, “What’s Causing Your Eye Pain?