Why Rubbing Your Eyes Feels Good – And Can Be Dangerous

So many things that seem so right in the moment have consequences later, and the simple act of eye rubbing turns out to be one of them.

Whether it’s from a long day, a long night before the long day, or just the usual hours at your computer, tired eyes beg to be rubbed. “Your eyes typically dry out over the course of the day,” says Beeran Meghpara, M.D., attending cornea surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital. “Rubbing may spread the tears around the surface of the eye and lubricate it. Pushing on the lids releases oil from them, and makes the surface nice and slick.” So there’s a good reason it feels so nice, he says.

But “it’s not the greatest thing to be doing,” he admits. All that rubbing can exacerbate a serious disease of the cornea—some say it can cause it—called keratoconus, where the cornea gets weak, loses its shape, and causes vision impairment. It’s considered to be a fairly rare disease, yet hundreds of thousands of people have it. And you don’t want to be one.

Really pushing on the lids as you rub also causes eye pressure to go up. That increases the risk of glaucoma, which damages the optic nerve and causes vision loss over time. All pretty compelling reasons to resist the rub. Fortunately, there are other things you can do.

What to do instead of rubbing your eyes

  • Tear up. “Artificial tears are probably the simplest thing to do,” says Dr. Meghpara. Choose whatever formula you like, from liquid to gel to ointment, but don’t get a product that says it gets the red out—those often end up being more irritating. If your eyes are so dry that you need to use artificial tears more than twice a day, it’s worth seeing a doctor about whether you have dry eye, which can be treated.
  • Use warm compresses over your eyes. Try a warm washcloth or mask to make eyes feel refreshed. Not like you’re going to pull this out in the middle of the day, but it might help you cut down on nighttime eye rubbing.
  • Treat allergies if you have them. Rubbing eyes that are itchy from seasonal allergies can start a vicious cycle. Allergies can cause bumps on the inside of your lids, and rubbing irritates them more. It’s like scratching a dry patch on your skin—it feels good for a few moments, but ends up making it more irritated in the end. Treating the allergies should help remove the rubbing problem.

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