Cooling and tears: Activating a natural pathway for instant relief
TL;DR: Next time you need rapid dry eye relief, try a minute or two of refreshing cold on your eyes and feel the tears start flowing! Special “TRPM8” channels in your eyes are activated by cold sensations, and directly stimulate the lacrimal gland to produce natural tears.
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This week, we’re going to discuss ditching the eye drops in favor of a quick cooling boost.
Imagine it’s around 2pm, Wednesday afternoon (for some of you right now, maybe it is!). You’ve been at your desk all day, sending emails, writing reports, or in several consecutive hours of virtual meetings. That last one especially can be tricky, because you more or less have to stay planted at your desk, eyes fixed on your monitor.
Before long, you start to feel that itchy, stinging feeling in your eyes. Like you want to rub them, but even that doesn’t produce much relief.
Or maybe you’re rubbing the back of your neck, feeling some tightness or strain there. That, of course, could be feeding into that headache you’ve been fighting all afternoon.
You squeeze your eyes closed to try to get some relief, and maybe get a soothing tear or two as a reward for your efforts.
What I am describing here is digital eye strain. Digital eye strain is exactly this suite of symptoms that many of us have experienced, and can even kick in after only 2 hours using digital devices.
If you’re someone obligated to use devices for much of the day, you have likely experienced some combination of these symptoms before. The answer for many people is a classic “quick fix”: hydrating eye drops.
What we’re craving is that moisture, that feeling of soothing relief. But especially in recent years, we’ve become more aware of a natural pathway that evolved to respond to this type of irritation.
Specialized Cold Sensors
Transient receptor potential melastatin 8 (for your and my sake, let’s just refer to these in their abbreviated form as TRPM8) channels exist on your eyes.
There are several important roles served by TRPM8. Firstly, the pathway I mentioned above relies on TRPM8 channels to detect eye surface “dryness.” Their other role is complementary: TRPM8 channels can directly stimulate the lacrimal gland to secrete tears.
In practical terms, imagine it’s a blustery October afternoon. You’re waiting for a friend outside, and are in the unfortunate circumstance of staring into the wind. Your eyes notice right away – that wind rapidly evaporates the moisture on the surface of your eye, and you’ll likely start to blink to compensate.