Why Are My Eyes Dry? -- Causes and Top10 Natural Remedies
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Why Are My Eyes Dry? -- Causes and Top 10 Natural Remedies

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November 18, 2011, last updated July 20, 2014

By ALISON TURNER, Contributing Columnist

Dry eye syndrome  affects over 3.2 million American women who are middle-aged or older , and is estimated to affect more than 2.79 million US men by 2030 .  Furthermore, according to two prevalence studies in 2003 and 2009 led by Dr. DA Schaumberg with the Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard Medical School, Dry eye syndrome becomes more likely with age, increasing more drastically in women from a 5.7% rate under the age of 50, to 9.8% amongst women who are 75 or older. Furthermore, newer research has put the estimates even higher. A 2013 study estimates that up to 43 million Americans now suffer from dry eyes.  

Having dry eyes may seem like not such a big deal - won't eye drops do the trick? The National Eye Institute  reports that the production and drainage of tears is important to the health of the entire eye: tears keep eyes moist, which helps to heal wounds and protect against infection.  People with dry eye are unable to keep the surface of the eye lubricated, which may cause a scratchy feeling, stinging or burning, or pain and redness in the eye, as well as a stringy discharge or heaviness of the eyelids.

As we see in the numbers above, having dry eye is relatively common and can occur with age, particularly in women after menopause.  Other causes of dry eye range from the environment (a dry climate,for example), to the use of certain drugs (such as antihistamines or anti-depressants), to more serious diseases like rheumatic arthritis or Sjögren's syndrome.

Eye drops or artificial tears sometimes do the trick to relieve symptoms of dry eye syndrome.  In other cases, however, dry eyes may indicate a more serious problem, so that a trip to the doctor should follow your trip to the pharmacy. 

Here  is a list of 10 possibilities supported by recent studies for your dry eyes, including both natural remedies to alleviate symptoms, and potential links to a different disease that may be at the root of the problem;

1. The Warm Compress: Scientifically Proven Remedy for Dry Eyes

Remember when some of your older family members used a warm compress as a panacea for all maladies? Well, they were right, at least when it comes to dry eyes.

Since 2008 it has been scientifically proven that warm compresses help against dry eyes.  Several researchers in the United States, including Dr. Jack Greiner with both the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston and Harvard Medical School,  assure that warm compresses have "considerable clinical value" against dry eye that occurs from dysfunction of the meibomian gland .  They explain that tear secretion is "largely oil based," so that the melting range is lower than the temperature that would cause thermal injury to the skin.

The team even experimented with the most effective way of applying a warm compress.  A patient should heat the compress to 45 degrees celcius, "optimize contact" between the compress and the outer eyelid surfaces, and reheat the compress frequently, repeating for at least four minutes in order "to achieve an inner lower eyelid temperature ? 40°C."

For some of us, following these precise, scientifically-proven instructions, may be all we need to get our eyes lubricated again.

2. Working at a Computer Can Cause Dry Eyes

All work and no play might make healthy eyes go away.While it may not have been the dream for most, many of us have ended up in front of a computer screen for most of the working day.  This does, of course, have its benefits, but one potential drawback is the effect this kind of work can have on our eyes.

In 2006, several Danish researchers including Peder Wolkoff with the Indoor Environmental Group at the National Institute of Occupational Health in Denmark,  responded to the "common complaint" of dry eyes and other eye irritation in the office environment.  They explain that a "relative humidity" usually protects the eye against dryness, but that intensive computer work alters the film over the cornea and creates "dry spot formation," amongst other symptoms.

These experts insist that "the role of humidity on eye irritation symptoms should not be underestimated."  The risk of dry eye in the office can be alleviated, they advise, with multiple short breaks, as well as longer breaks from tasks that demand "visual work."  Next time your boss tells you to get back to work, tell her it's scientifically proven that more breaks are better for the eyes.

3. Fatty acids -A Hero for Your Dry Eyes.

Fatty acids such as Omega 3 and Omega 6 have been praised as saviours for several maladies, from bad skin to depression.  Research from 2008 suggests that these essential fatty acids might also be used for the treatment of dry eyes.

Along with colleagues from the Harvard Medical School and the University of Genoa, Dr. Saadia Rashid with the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston  analyzed the effect of topically applying Omega-3 fatty acid as dry eye treatment in mice.  They found that the treatment "led to a significant decrease in dry eye signs and inflammatory changes at both cellular and molecular levels."

While more work is needed to ensure that what works on mice will also work on humans, the study suggests that Omega-3 "may be a novel therapy" for dry eye symptoms. 

Try dabbing the corners of your eyes with  a warm wet compress of cotton balls dipped in essential fatty acids to relieve your dry eyes. The bit of oil and lukewarm water should help to soothe your eyes.

4. Menopause Causes Dry Eyes.

As mentioned above, dry eye symptoms are more common in women than they are in men, particularly with age.  One reason for this is that hormonal changes occurring with menopause may be linked to dry eye.

A recent study (2010) conducted by Dr. Hye Jung Paik with the Department of Ophthalmology at the Gachon University Gil Medical Center in Korea and other experts,  looked at how hormone replacement therapy (HRT) affected dry eye syndrome in thirty six postmenopausal women.  They found that "Hormone replacement therapy consisting of conjugated estrogen and progesterone significantly improved the symptoms and signs of dry eye syndrome in postmenopausal women."

So if you're frustrated by the other symptoms of menopause, it might be refreshing - just a little -- to know that hormone replacement therapy is an option that may relieve you of dry eyes.

5. Dry Eyes Are a Side Effect of Some Eye Surgery.

Have you recently had eye surgery?

Surgery to improve eye sight is increasingly popular (LASIK eye surgery, for example, has been used by nearly 16 million Americans ); but many Americans are also undergoing procedures to improve the sight of their eyes, that is, the way their eyes look to other people, such as periorbital surgery.  In both of these cases, dry eyes may be a symptom after the procedure.

In 2009 Dr. Adam Hamawy from the Department of Plastic Surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas,  looked at the prevalence of dry eye in patients after periorbital surgery.  

The team retrospectively reviewed charts from over 200 patients who underwent blephoroplasty, a procedure that modifies the upper or lower eyelid, usually for aesthetic reasons.  10.9% of these patients suffered dry eyes longer than two weeks after the surgery, 2% experienced symptoms more than 2 months later, and in one case further surgery was needed to correct the problem.

The authors emphasize that in most cases, "dry eyes resolved with conservative management, including artificial tears, lubrication, topical and systemic steroids, and night taping."  Nevertheless, for the benefit of that smaller percentage of patients for whom dry eyes persists after eye surgery, "recognizing and addressing risk factors before surgery" could help to minimize later and persistent occurrence of dry eye syndrome.

6. Rheumatic Disease Can Make Your Eyes Dry.

The term "rheumatic" refers to a broad category of diseases characterized by inflammation and impaired function of connection or supporting structures of the body.  The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases  reports over 100 kinds of rheumatic diseases, affecting joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, muscles, even internal organs.  One recently-researched symptom of rheumatic arthritis is dry eyes.

In 2008 Drs. Frederick Wolfe and Kaleb Michaud, affiliated with the National Data Bank for Rheumatic Diseases at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center,  analyzed data from nearly 1000 patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  They found that persistent ocular dryness occurred in 11.6% of patients, and sporadic dryness in 17.5%.  They also noted that any factor that increases the severity of RA "results in an increase in dryness."

It is possible to be born with a susceptibility to rheumatic disease, such as osteoarthritis, a weakness of the cartilage that is inherited - but most pre-existing conditions are usually combined with an environmental factor, such as repeated injury or excessive use of a particular joint. 

Treatment options depend on the patient's circumstances, usually including rest and relaxation, exercise, diet and medication. 

7. Glaucoma Is a Leading Cause of Dry Eyes.

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