Eye Rubbing

Why do we rub our eyes?

The urge to rub the eye occurs due to nerve and chemical signals from the skin, the lining of the eye (called the conjunctiva), the eye lashes, and the eye ball itself. Rubbing dampens the initial irritating signals by bombarding the senses with the more pleasant mechanical sense of rubbing instead, thus reducing the stimulus to rub. There are 3 major causes of rubbing:

  1. Watering
  2. Itch (often allergic)
  3. Habit

90% of rubbers are habitual. Most habitual rubbers are not even aware that they are rubbing their eyes. Patients may not realise how much they rub their eyes, and even deny eye rubbing when pointed out by partners or family members.

What is the difference between rubbing, wiping and dabbing?

Rubbing refers to both the application of significant pressure on the body, AND moving that application in a rotary motion, stretching the soft tissue of the body. Wiping refers to horizontal or arc of movement with moderate pressure. Dabbing refers to gentle pressure on a single spot, with no movement.

What happens when we rub?

Your eye is a soft round structure and your hand isn’t. Aside from symptomatic relief, when you rub, you basically warp and deform the eye (the cornea). Over time that deformity becomes permanent, causes blurriness, distortion and effects vision. In extreme cases it can cause blindness.

Types of rubbing

Patients commonly show preference to rub one eye over the other. There are 7 types of rubbing:

  1. Finger
  2. Knuckle
  3. Palm of the hand
  4. Back of the hand
  5. Shoulder
  6. Eyelid (pulling the top eyelid over the bottom)
  7. Nocturnal rubbing (either from rubbing in your sleep or placing pressure on the eye with a pillow or hand)

What are the long-term effects of rubbing?

Continued rubbing results in damage to the skin of the face, eyelids, tear drain, the lining of the eye and the eyeball. It precipitates diseases including but not limited to

  • keratoconus (warpage of the cornea)
  • stretching of the eyelid skin, causing redness and inflammation
  • wrinkles, and bulging of the skin of the eyelids,
  • watery eye due to permanent damage to the muscle pump draining tears
  • eye irritation

DONT RUB or WIPE! Cessation of rubbing and wiping is a treatment for Keratoconus. Gentle dabbing is permitted. To help stop rubbing, you can relieve the sensation of itch by gently scratching the eyelid margin with the finger nail without applying pressure to the eye. Ice packs are also helpful.