Understanding the Purpose of Tears
Tears are a fundamental part of the human condition. Whether they are the result of profound emotion, intense physical pain, allergies, or just the onions you chopped while making dinner, tears are a phenomenon with which every one of us is familiar. Many of our patients at Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons are interested in exactly how, and why, the eyes produce tears, and we believe that it is also extremely important for people to understand just how vital a role tears play in keeping the eyes healthy.
Under normal circumstances, the lacrimal glands, which sit in-between the upper eyelid and the cornea, produce tears constantly. When the eyelid spontaneously blinks, the tear solution is spread as a thin film across the eye, moisturizing it and washing away foreign materials. The fluid then drains through the lacrimal punctum, tiny openings under the lower eyelid, and into the nasal cavity. However “crying” occurs when certain stimuli, like contaminants in the air, intense emotional stimulation, or physical pain, cause an excessive amount of tears to be produced. This overwhelms the lacrimal drainage system and the excess fluid overflows, cascading over the eyelids and down the cheeks.
Interestingly, the composition of tears can vary depending on their cause. Basal tears (which keep the cornea nourished and lubricated) and reflex tears (which wash out irritating foreign particles or vapors) are predominantly composed of a saline solution containing various vitamins and minerals vital to normal cell function along with oils that prevent the tears from evaporating too quickly. However the tears that are caused by strong emotion or physical pain have been found to contain significant concentrations of several additional chemicals, including a protein called prolactin, which plays a role in breast milk production, adrenocorticotropic hormones that are indicators of high stress levels, and leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that reduces pain and works to improve mood.
Most scientists agree that crying does serve a beneficial function. Some believe that it is a safety mechanism that rids the body of stress-related toxins while others hold that it evolved as a means of displaying vulnerability or submission to an attacker. There is even research to suggest that stifling emotional tears can cause elevated risk of heart disease and hypertension and may contribute to the development of stress related conditions like colitis or ulcers. However, regardless of the reason for their production, there is no denying that tears play a vital role in keeping the eye healthy. When the eye does not produce tears properly, or when the tears are not of the correct consistency and evaporate too quickly the results can include blurred vision, burning, itching, redness, and even increased sensitivity to light, all symptoms of a condition called chronic dry eye.
Mild cases of chronic dry eye can usually be treated with artificial tears or other medication, but more severe cases may require the use of tiny punctual plugs. These silicone or collagen plugs, which are frequently used after eye surgery, can be placed into the corner of the eyelid where the tear drains are located, preventing tears from draining too quickly and keeping the eyes healthy and hydrated. If you feel as though your eyes may be excessively dry, or if you have questions about any of the optical services we offer, please contact Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons today to make an appointment. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for more to keep your vision healthy.