anatomy of lacrimal systmen

Did you know that your eyes have their own unique drainage system to keep them healthy? The lacrimal drainage system plays a vital role in maintaining our eye health, and understanding its functions and potential issues can help us take better care of our eyes. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at the anatomy, functions, disorders, diagnosis, and treatment options for the lacrimal drainage system.

Key Takeaways

  • The lacrimal drainage system is responsible for transporting tears and can be affected by age, injury, medical conditions or congenital dacryocystitis.
  • Symptoms of blocked tear ducts include eye infections and inflammation. Diagnosis involves physical examination and diagnostic tests such as the fluorescein dye disappearance test.
  • Prevention & maintenance involve regular checkups & good hygiene practices to reduce risk of infection.

The Lacrimal Drainage System: An Overview

The lacrimal drainage system is responsible for transporting tears from the surface of the eye to the nasal cavity, ensuring our eyes remain lubricated and free of debris. It comprises the following components:

  • Lacrimal puncta
  • Canaliculi
  • Lacrimal sac
  • Nasolacrimal duct

Lacrimal duct diseases, including blocked tear ducts and dacryocystitis, are frequently seen in the lacrimal drainage system. Blocked tear ducts commonly result from nasolacrimal duct obstruction, whereas inflammation or infection typically leads to dacryocystitis.

Anatomy of the Lacrimal Drainage System

The lacrimal drainage system starts with the lacrimal gland, which produces tears that are then collected by the superior and inferior puncta. These puncta are small openings located on the upper and lower eyelids, respectively. From there, tears travel through the canaliculi into the lacrimal sac and eventually down the nasolacrimal duct into the nasal cavity. This intricate system allows for the efficient drainage of tears and helps prevent eye infections.

Congenital dacryocystitis is a rare disorder that can affect the lacrimal drainage system in newborns, while acute and chronic dacryocystitis are infections that can occur in both children and adults. Factors such as age, injury, and medical conditions like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), can also contribute to lacrimal duct diseases, affecting the normal flow of tears.

Functions of the Lacrimal Drainage System

Producing tears and directing excess tears into the nasal cavity are the main roles of the lacrimal drainage system. The lacrimal glands are fundamentally involved in generating tear fluid, which lubricates the eye’s surface with each blink. The tear ducts, on the other hand, serve as small tubes that transport tears from the lacrimal glands to the nasal cavity, helping to keep our eyes clean and moist.

However, if there is an issue with the lacrimal drainage system—such as congenital nasolacrimal duct obstruction or other lacrimal duct diseases—blocked tear duct symptoms can occur. These issues can lead to discomfort, excessive tearing, or even an increased risk of tear duct infections.

Common Disorders Affecting the Lacrimal Drainage System

A diagram of the lacrimal drainage system, showing the lacrimal sac, nasolacrimal duct, and nasal cavity, with an indication of the blocked tear duct

Blocked tear ducts and dacryocystitis are the two most common disorders affecting the lacrimal drainage system. When there’s an obstruction in the tear drainage system, blocked tear ducts can result, causing watery eyes, heightened risk of infection, and inflammation.

On the other hand, dacryocystitis is specifically an infection or inflammation of the tear sac, which is often caused by an obstruction in the nasolacrimal duct. Both of these conditions can cause symptoms such as excessive tearing, redness, and swelling, which can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life.

Blocked Tear Ducts

A diagram showing the lacrimal drainage system in the human eye, which can be affected by blocked tear ducts

A blocked tear duct is a condition where the normal drainage of tears is impaired due to a partial or complete obstruction of the tear drainage system. Several factors can contribute to this, such as injury, infection, or in rare instances, a tumor. Blocked tear ducts can lead to the stagnation of tears, which may facilitate the proliferation of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, resulting in recurrent eye infections and inflammation.

If tearing persists for several days or if the eye undergoes repeated or constant infections, medical consultation is recommended. Most blocked tear ducts can be corrected, and prompt intervention for ocular inflammation or infections can avert additional complications.


Dacryocystitis is the inflammation and infection of the tear sac, which is typically caused by an obstruction in the nasolacrimal system. Dacryocystitis can be divided into two main categories: acute and chronic. Each has its own distinct set of characteristics and symptoms. Acute dacryocystitis manifests as ocular discomfort, inflammation, and enlargement of the lacrimal sac at the inferomedial canthus, while chronic dacryocystitis is a long-lasting inflammation that can affect the normal functioning of the tear ducts.

The indications of a tear duct infection may include:

  • Discomfort
  • Profuse tearing
  • Redness
  • Inflammation
  • Purulence

Oral antibiotics are often used to treat dacryocystitis. Dacryocystorhinostomy (DCR) is then used to create an alternate pathway for tears to pass through, thereby unblocking the lacrimal system and reducing the risk of recurring infections. Conservative treatments, such as Crigler massages and warm compresses, may also be used to alleviate symptoms and manage the condition in less severe cases.

Swift treatment for dacryocystitis is vital to prevent complications like cavernous sinus thrombosis, orbital cellulitis, or excessive bleeding. Timely diagnosis and treatment can help prevent the progression of the condition and mitigate the risk of more serious health concerns.

Diagnosing Lacrimal Drainage System Issues

A diagram of the lacrimal drainage system, showing the lacrimal sac, nasolacrimal duct, and nasal cavity, with an indication of the dye disappearance test

Diagnosing issues with the lacrimal drainage system involves a thorough physical examination, tear duct massages, and various diagnostic tests such as dye disappearance tests, imaging, and laboratory studies.

These diagnostic procedures aid in pinpointing the root cause of the problem and shaping the right treatment plan, thereby mitigating symptoms and enhancing overall eye health.

Physical Examination

During a physical examination, the doctor will check for the following symptoms in the eye area:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Fever
  • Excessive tearing
  • Pus

Crigler massages are performed to release any infectious discharge from the tear sac. This is done in order to obtain a sample and send it to a laboratory for testing of potential pathogens. This helps to accurately diagnose the issue and identify the most effective treatment options.

In addition to the physical examination, the doctor may also assess the patient’s clinical history and other indications of infection or inflammation. Such a thorough evaluation ensures a comprehensive investigation and resolution of all potential factors contributing to the lacrimal drainage system’s problems.

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnostic tests assume an integral role in unearthing the root cause of lacrimal drainage system issues and deciding on the fitting treatment plan. Some of the diagnostic tests employed for diagnosing issues with the lacrimal drainage system include:

  • Jones I Test
  • Tear drainage test (dye disappearance test)
  • Ultrasound imaging
  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI

The fluorescein dye disappearance test is a particularly useful diagnostic tool for evaluating the functioning of the lacrimal drainage system. It involves placing a sterile dye in the corner of the eye and assessing whether it drains normally or remains static in the eye for an extended period. This test, along with other diagnostic tests, helps doctors accurately diagnose the issue and devise an effective treatment plan.

Treatment Options for Lacrimal Drainage System Disorders

A diagram of the lacrimal drainage system, showing the lacrimal sac, nasolacrimal duct, and nasal cavity, with an indication of the treatments for dacryocystitis

Treatment options for lacrimal drainage system disorders range from conservative treatments like warm compresses and antibiotics to surgical interventions such as dacryocystorhinostomy (DCR). The choice of treatment depends on the severity of the issue and the patient’s individual needs.

Preventing complications and assuring the lacrimal drainage system’s optimal functioning hinge on early diagnosis and swift treatment.

Conservative Treatments

Conservative treatments aim to manage symptoms and reduce inflammation, while antibiotics target bacterial infections that may be responsible for the disorder of the lacrimal drainage system. Some conservative treatments used to clear clogged oil glands, remove dandruff-like material from the eyelashes, and facilitate canalization of the lacrimal drainage system include:

  • Warm compresses
  • Eyelid scrubs
  • Nasolacrimal massage
  • Hydrostatic massages

For infants with blocked tear ducts, watchful waiting without any treatment may be a viable option. In cases where conservative treatments do not yield improvement, surgical management may be considered to address the issue and prevent further complications.

Consulting a healthcare professional is key to determining the most appropriate treatment strategy tailored to each individual’s needs.

Surgical Interventions

Surgical interventions are often necessary for chronic or severe cases that do not respond to conservative treatments. Dacryocystorhinostomy (DCR), punctoplasty, and therapeutic probing of the lacrimal duct are the surgical interventions available for disorders of the lacrimal drainage system.

DCR is a surgical procedure that involves establishing a new conduit between the lacrimal sac and the nasal cavity, allowing for the appropriate drainage of tears and alleviating symptoms associated with obstructed tear ducts. Punctoplasty, on the other hand, involves widening the punctum, the opening of the tear duct, to facilitate the drainage of tears.

Therapeutic probing of the lacrimal duct involves the insertion of a thin probe into the tear duct to facilitate the clearance of any blockages and permit the drainage of tears in an unimpeded manner. These surgical interventions can provide long-term relief and improve the overall functioning of the lacrimal drainage system.

Prevention and Maintenance of a Healthy Lacrimal Drainage System

A diagram of the lacrimal drainage system, showing the lacrimal sac, nasolacrimal duct, and nasal cavity, with an indication of the risk factors for dacryocystitis

Maintaining a healthy lacrimal drainage system and preventing issues necessitate good eye hygiene practices and regular eye check-up appointments. These proactive measures can help to avoid eye infections and other eye-related issues, as well as detect potential problems in the early stages, allowing for timely intervention and treatment.

Eye Hygiene

Good eye hygiene practices are essential to prevent eye infections and maintain the overall health of the lacrimal drainage system. Some examples of good eye hygiene practices include:

  • Washing one’s hands before touching the eyes
  • Abstaining from rubbing the eyes
  • Wearing protective eyewear when necessary
  • Refraining from sharing eye makeup or contact lenses

For children, a recommended prevention routine for tear duct infections includes:

  1. Washing hands thoroughly
  2. Applying a warm compress over the area of the tear sac
  3. Compressing and emptying the tear sac by applying pressure with the index finger between the eye and nose

By adhering to these hygiene practices, the risk factors of eye infections and other issues can be significantly reduced.

Regular Eye Check-ups

Regular eye check-ups are a fundamental part of preserving a robust lacrimal drainage system. These check-ups can help detect and address any issues with the lacrimal drainage system early, reducing the risk of complications and ensuring optimal eye health.

During a typical eye examination, the doctor will:

  • Inspect the eyes for any indications of infection or other issues
  • Assess the patient’s vision
  • Carry out tests to evaluate the health of the lacrimal drainage system

By staying up-to-date with regular eye examinations, potential problems can be identified and treated early, preventing more serious health concerns.


Understanding the lacrimal drainage system and its associated disorders is essential for maintaining good eye health. By practicing good eye hygiene, undergoing regular eye check-ups, and seeking prompt treatment for any issues, we can ensure the optimal functioning of our lacrimal drainage system and enjoy clear, comfortable vision. Remember, a healthy lacrimal drainage system is a key component of overall eye health, and taking proactive measures can make a world of difference.

Q: What is the lacrimal drainage system?

A: The lacrimal drainage system is a network of structures in the eye responsible for draining tears from the surface of the eye into the nose.

Q: What are the symptoms of lacrimal drainage system problems?

A: Symptoms of lacrimal drainage system problems may include excessive tearing, watery eyes, recurrent eye infections, and a constant feeling of something in the eye.

Q: What causes lacrimal drainage system problems?

A: Lacrimal drainage system problems can be caused by a blockage or narrowing of the tear ducts, inflammation or infection of the tear ducts, or trauma to the eye or nose.

Q: How is a lacrimal drainage system problem diagnosed?

A: A lacrimal drainage system problem can be diagnosed through a thorough eye examination, including an evaluation of tear production, tear flow, and the structure of the tear ducts.

Q: What are the treatment options for lacrimal drainage system problems?

A: Treatment options for lacrimal drainage system problems may include using warm compresses, massaging the tear ducts, prescribing antibiotic eye drops, or performing surgery to repair or bypass the tear ducts.

Q: Is surgery the only option for treating lacrimal drainage system problems?

A: Surgery is not always necessary for treating lacrimal drainage system problems. In some cases, non-surgical treatments such as warm compresses or medication may be sufficient.

Q: Can lacrimal drainage system problems be prevented?

A: While it may not be possible to prevent all lacrimal drainage system problems, maintaining good eye hygiene, avoiding eye trauma, and promptly treating eye infections can help reduce the risk.

Q: Are lacrimal drainage system problems common?

A: Lacrimal drainage system problems are relatively common, especially in infants and older adults. However, they can occur at any age.

Q: Can lacrimal drainage system problems affect both eyes?

A: Yes, lacrimal drainage system problems can affect both eyes. However, having a problem in only one eye is also possible.

Q: Can lacrimal drainage system problems cause permanent damage to the eyes?

A: In most cases, lacrimal drainage system problems can be effectively treated without causing permanent damage to the eyes. However, if left untreated for a long time, severe cases may lead to complications such as chronic infections or corneal damage.


Photo graph of Dr. Conlon operating with loops on.

Dr. M. Ronan Conlon started his career in the field of ophthalmology at the same time as the development of refractive eye surgery in Canada. In 1996, he brought laser technology to Canada from Germany, which allowed him to perform laser eye surgery before it was available in the United States. With the establishment of the Conlon Eye Institute, Dr. Conlon has performed more than 40,000 refractive procedures and has advanced his expertise in LASIK and refractive cataract surgery.


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