Do you consider yourself a selective weeper, or do you shed tears at the simplest moments? No matter how frequently you experience this phenomenon, it’s a universal part of being human. Tears often fall from the corners of our eyes when we feel extremely sad or happy, but they also serve to protect and clean our eyes.
Get out your facial tissue; it’s time for an in-depth examination of tears.
How and Why Do Our Bodies Make Tears?
Although we tend to notice tears only when they overflow from the inside corners of our eyes, this fluid actually originates in the lacrimal glands that exist behind the upper outside part of our eyeballs. These glands vaguely resemble an almond, and their main job is to make and release tears. They do this job constantly, even when we aren’t crying.
In fact, tears from the lacrimal glands come in several types, both functional and emotional:
- Basal tears keep our eyes comfortable and wet. The human body makes 5 to 10 ounces of basal tears every day.
- Reflex tears get produced in response to eye irritants-think freshly cut onions or smoke around a campfire. The excess fluid in the eye helps to clear away the annoying substance more quickly.
- Emotional tears emerge when we experience an overabundance of feeling. Unlike basal and reflex tears, emotional tears contain special proteins and hormones that mark their origins and purpose. For example, they have an endorphin known to boost mood and minimize pain.
After tears of all types exit the lacrimal gland, they flow down and across our eye, usually assisted by our blinking eyelids. Their destination is the lacrimal punctum, that small region on the inside corner of each eye. The lacrimal punctum contains two small tubes that lead to the lacrimal sack, the tear duct, and eventually the nasal cavity. Under most circumstances, tears use that pathway to drain unnoticed from our eyes.
Why Do Tear Ducts Sometimes Become Blocked?
Unfortunately, our tear ducts sometimes drain imperfectly, leading to excessive,
noticeable tearing. Blocked tear ducts can also develop infections, a condition known as dacryocystitis. Depending on the severity of the block, the problem can be slightly annoying, mildly uncomfortable, or quite painful.
Blocked tear ducts occur frequently in infants. In some babies, it simply takes a few months for the tiny membranes in each tear duct to open completely, so the baby may seem to produce too many tears. A pediatrician or an ophthalmologist can teach parents a simple massage technique that encourages the membrane to open naturally. In many children, blocked tear ducts clear before the first birthday.
Blocked tear ducts may also develop in adults, often after an acute and intense facial trauma. A blockage with trauma as its root cause may clear up on its own after a few months. Other causes of blocked tear ducts in adults include chronic eye infections, side effects of some eye medications, age-related eye changes, or other medical conditions.
If a patient’s tear ducts refuse to open up on their own, an ophthalmologist can perform a surgery under general anesthesia to open them. The ophthalmologist may enlarge and clean the tear duct in each eye, making it possible for tears to drain normally. This is usually the surgery used on infants and toddlers with tear duct problems. The ophthalmologist may also place temporary stents in the tear ducts or create new tear drainage pathways.
What Triggers the Production of Emotional Tears?
If our tear ducts are meant to keep our tears from overflowing, why do tears sometimes still roll down our cheeks? When too many tears try to exit our eyes at once, it creates something like a traffic jam in our tear ducts. Unable to drain quickly through the normal pathways, tears overflow out of our eyes and down our face.
Typically, emotional tears are the type that overflow, and the overabundance of emotional tears occurs because of signals from the limbic and autonomic nervous system. These systems control our emotional and automatic reactions. Intense emotions, both positive and negative, trigger these systems to create a neurotransmitter that initiates the production of emotional tears.
An individual person’s tendency to cry emotional tears likely has a lot to do with hormones. Studies reveal that women cry about five times more than men, on average, and that women cry for longer periods than men. However, boys and girls cry roughly the same amount until they hit puberty. At that point, the rise in testosterone corresponds to less crying in boys, and the elevated amounts of estrogen lead girls to cry more.
Hormones aren’t the only explanation for the difference, either. Recent studies have also shown that men may have larger tear ducts than women, meaning they experience emotional tear overflow less often. Socialization and culture also affect how much people cry.
Similarly, men and women tend to shed emotional tears for different purposes (although these are of course generalities). Men usually cry over only major, life-altering changes, such as the death of a loved one. In contrast, women may cry during a larger range of emotional experiences, including having a bad day and hearing a touching story.
Next time you shed a tear or two, think back on these fascinating facts about this often overlooked body system. If you notice any problems with your tears, talk to an ophthalmologist at Country Hills Eye Center.