“My Eye Popped Out!”


A 44-year-old male with hypertension presents via EMS with this ocular complaint after having sneezed. What’s your assessment? 

A 44-year-old male with hypertension presented via EMS with the complaint “my eye popped out!” The patient reported right eye swelling and pain immediately after sneezing.

He denied trauma or change in his visual acuity, but admitted to a prior history of cocaine abuse. Physical exam revealed periorbital subcutaneous emphysema and intact accommodation and extraocular movements.



His pupils were equal and reactive to light. Visual acuity was measured at 20/70 OD, 20/40 OS. Intraocular pressures were measured at 23 mmHg and 20 mmHg in the right eye and left eye, respectively.

Non-contrasted CT scan of the orbits showed massive subcutaneous emphysema without foreign body, violation of the globe, or optic nerve edema. A possible subtle bony defect was found in the right medial orbital wall (below).



PoppedEye4The patient’s orbital emphysema started to mildly improve while in the ED. His case was discussed with an ophthalmologist and the patient was discharged to follow up in the eye clinic.

Orbital Emphysema
Orbital emphysema is an uncommon condition occurring when air is forced into subcutaneous tissue around the orbit. Patients with this condition commonly have a history of sinusitis, facial trauma or surgery. The thin lamina papyracea is the most common site of the bony defect allowing passage of air from paranasal sinuses to the subcutaneous tissues [1]. Most case reports of orbital emphysema describe preceding trauma or instrumentation, while sneezing is a known precipitant [2,3,4].

Orbital emphysema is usually benign and spontaneously resolves as the air is absorbed. However there may be complications including orbital compartment syndrome and resultant loss of vision [5].


Examination should focus on signs of orbital compartment syndrome and resultant optic nerve ischemia, such as decreased visual acuity, afferent pupillary defect, disc edema, and increased intraocular pressure. If there is suspicion for orbital compartment syndrome, emergent decompression is necessary and is typically performed by lateral canthotomy and cantholysis. Some large orbital bony defects may require surgical repair, particularly in patients with diplopia and evidence of entrapped muscle or periorbital tissue, large fractures, and enophthalmos that does not resolve [6].


  1. Zimmer-Galler IE, Bartley GB. Orbital emphysema: case reports and review of the literature. Mayo Clin Proc. 1994 Feb; 69(2):115-21.
  2. Chiu W, Huang T, Ku W, Lih M, Wang W. Spontaneous orbital subcutaneous emphysema after sneezing. Am J Emerg Med. 26(3):381.e1-381.e2. 2008.
  3. Sen D, Chaturvedi PK. Orbital emphysema after sneezing: a case report. MJAFI. 2011;67:282-284.
  4. Roselle H, Herman M. A hearty sneeze. Lancet. 2010;376(9755):1872.
  5. Shah N. Spontaneous subcutaneous orbital emphysema following forceful nose blowing: treatment options. Indian J Ophthalmol. 2007 Sep-Oct; 55(5):395.
  6. Hunts JH, Patrinely JR, Holds JB, Anderson RL. Orbital emphysema. Staging and acute management. Ophthalmology. 1994 May; 101(5):960-6.
  7. Fleishman JA, Beck RW, Hoffman RO. Orbital emphysema as an ophthalmologic emergency. Ophthalmology. 1984 Nov; 91(11):1389-91.


Dr. Westafer  is an emergency physician and research fellow at Baystate Medical Center. She is the author of The Short Coat.

Dr. Daniel is assistant professor in emergency medicine at Baystate Medical Center and associate director for the fellowship in wilderness medicine.


  1. Boghos L. Artinian MD on

    Bulbar Dislocation

    A violent fit of sneezing
    And out pops his left eye.
    Jesus Christ! cries the startled host;
    The hostess swoons, lest her guest should die.
    Amid the tumult, he calmly contrives
    To reinsert his mischievous eye,
    And feign credible bewilderment
    To mask precedents and the truth deny.

    Boghos L. Artinian

    This is a true story which happened at the home of acquaintances where the guest was the cello teacher of my daughter. The host told me what happened on the phone, then the cello teacher himself said he was surprised but fortunately could push his eye back in. To me it was obvious that the condition (bulbar dislocation) was a recurrent condition in his case

  2. I have popping eye this days but i think its from facial wash that used every morning that i used it cause my eye lens blurry and irritated then my eyebrows is pumping

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