Women who have dry eye are also more likely to suffer from chronic pain, and the connection may even be part of a previously unknown etiology of the condition, according to new research published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.1 

Researchers from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London and the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands used a questionnaire to collect patient-provided health information on dry eye and related risk factors from 3,824 British women from 2,410 families aged 20 to 87. This marks the first time a population-based epidemiological study on dry eye has been done in the UK.

Of the subjects surveyed, 9.6% had been diagnosed with dry eye by a clinician and were using artificial tear eye drops or gel, and 20.8% reported experiencing dry eye symptoms within the past three months. 

The study results indicated dry eye to be most associated with several chronic pain syndromes: pelvic pain, irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. Patients with these diseases typically exhibit migraine and depression—two psychiatric conditions also strongly linked to dry eye in this study. As the various disorders have been hypothesized to share a common etiology, these findings, say the researchers, raise the possibility that “altered pain perception and psychological and somatization factors influence DED and its symptomatology” and that “DED might be added to this spectrum of disorders.”

Osteoarthritis was also re-identified as a risk factor, and researchers suggested the connection could be due to increased pain sensitivity resulting from the progressive joint disease, which may lead those affected to complain earlier of dry eye symptoms.

Additional known risk factors reaffirmed in the study include age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and immune-mediated diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid diseases and allergies. A strong association between atopic disorders like eczema and asthma and dry eye was also noted, as was a connection between fertility problems and the eye disease. Subjects who wore contact lenses and older subjects were also more likely to exhibit dry eye, particularly those over age 60.

1. Vehof J, et al. Prevalence and risk factors of dry eye disease in a British female cohort. Br J Ophthalmol 2014;0:1–6.