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Why Does Rubbing Tired Eyes Feel Good?

Whether motivated by exhaustion, boredom or just an itch, there’s a certain sense of relief that can only be achieved with a satisfying eye rub. Alas, that urge to dig in with a finger — or a knuckle — could do more than just provide a good scratch, it might cause some problems.

For starters, the reason everyone from infants to senior citizens reaches for their eyes when tiredness sets in is because as eyes tire, they dryout. Rubbing stimulates the eyes’ lacrimal glands, which creates lubrication and gives some relief. And there’s more than just the feeling of an itch vanquished, pressure on the eyes actually stimulates the vagus nerve. That reflex slows down your heart rate and can take you from tired to downright snoozing.

In some cultures, rubbing your eyes is actually thought to improve vision — though there’s no real evidence to support it. In China, young students rub their eyes because traditional Chinese medicine suggests that rubbing prevents near-sightedness. So far, while the satisfaction of a good eye rub might reduce some strain or headaches, it has not been shown to combat myopia in any way.

What might surprise you is that rubbing actually releases histamines that can make that itch even worse!

The most basic issue that can arise from over-zealous rubbing is dirty hands and fingers, which can cause infections like pink eye. On the other end of the spectrum, the increased eye pressure created when you essentially squish the eye with your hands can actually make eyesight worse or, in severe cases, cause retinal detachment.

The front of the eye can develop problems too, as pressure on the cornea can cause problems on its own, plus that gritty feeling that seems to be both causing and solving the itch isn’t good for a lens that needs to be clear and scratch-free.

If those potential problems aren’t enough, rubbing can increase the dark circles under the eye because the pressure bursts small blood vessels beneath the skin.

We all know rubbing your eyes is a natural reaction to factors like tiredness and dry eye, but there’s not much to be gained from giving into the temptation besides very temporary relief. Doctors recommend using a cool, damp washcloth laid across the eyes to relieve itching, stay up-to-date on allergy medications if you’re prone to pollen-induced problems and take a time out instead of rubbing eyes when stressed. Of course, continuous eye problems should be evaluated by an eye care professional.