Why some patients take out their own eyes
February 27th, 2012
06:30 PM ET

Why some patients take out their own eyes

Remember the myth of Oedipus, where the king of Ancient Thebes stabbed his own eyes after he realized he'd killed his own father and married his mother?

As gory as it sounds, intentionally blinding oneself isn't entirely mythical. Although rare, there have been cases of people seriously injuring their own eyes, and sometimes completely removing them. There's even a technical term, self-enucleation, for the behavior of taking out your eyeballs.

Dr. Matthew Michael Large at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues have analyzed the records of this behavior available, and published several journal articles on the subject. Their latest is in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, appearing this week.

Based on more than 50 reports of self-injury of the eyes over the past 50 years, the scientists argue that it is not necessarily a so-called Oedipal phenomenon; people do not generally harm themselves this way because of guilt regarding incest. Instead, it is a symptom of untreated psychosis, Large and colleagues write.

The authors noted in a 2008 study that in no recorded culture is the eye ritually mutilated; in fact, it is the only external body part for which this is the case.

They analyzed 89 published cases describing serious self-inflicted eye injury by patients with a diagnosis of a psychotic illness. Patients more commonly removed an eye than penetrating it, or inflicting other orbital injuries. “Three patients blinded themselves with air guns and three patients sustained eye injuries in the course of attempting to stab their brains with a pen or pencil," the authors wrote.

Many patients also attempted or engaged in other violent acts: Two had previously committed homicide and there were several reports of serious assaults. And some had also tried other forms of self-mutilation: stabbing themselves in the neck, attempting to amputate their hands, or biting off their own tongues. Two patients attempted to amputate their own penises, and one castrated himself.

They cite a 1984 study in the journal Survey of Ophthalmology looking at 33 case reports, which found that half of them were young women, two-thirds had religious delusions and six cited the same Bible passage from Matthew:

“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

In 94% of the 89 cases, patients had psychotic symptoms related to the eye - for instance, that the eye was evil or had threatening powers. And some believed that to save themselves or others, they had to sacrifice a normal eye. In 76 of the cases, there was a schizophrenia-related diagnosis.

“None of the patients was reported to have self-enucleated for reasons that could be reasonably compared to the story of Oedipus," they write.

Mostly, patients injured themselves before getting treated. And they weren't only Christians of European descent, as some studies have suggested. Chinese, Japanese, Jewish and Muslim patients have also been documented, Large and colleagues write.

Eye injury of this nature is a medical and psychiatric emergency, they write. Patients should always consult with an ophthalmic surgeon immediately, and they should get prophylactic antibiotics and corticosteroids. A doctor should assess patients for vision loss in the other eye if only one eye was removed.

"Although we hesitate to recommend restrictive treatment for any patient, in the situation of a first or attempted self-enucleation, 1:1 nursing and the application of fingerless mittens and arm restraints until antipsychotic treatment has taken effect might be the only way to prevent deluded and determined patients from blinding themselves," Large and colleagues write in the new study. "Electro-convulsive therapy has also been described as a useful treatment."

Eye injuries are distinct from other forms of self-injury, which don't necessarily have psychotic roots, say ethnographers Peter and Patti Adler, authors of "The Tender Cut: Inside the World of Self-Injury." Cutting oneself and similar methods of self-harm are often motivated by troubled feelings, and see injuring themselves as a way to self-soothe, self-punish, or express inner bad feelings. Teenagers and adults experiencing these feelings are also known to engage in self-injury, as well as disadvantaged populations.

"People with serious psychological problems may self-injure, but at this point in time there are many, many more people who self-injure because their lives are tough and they don't know other ways of dealing with it," Adler and Adler told CNN in an e-mail.

But injury to the eye signifies more serious psychological problems, experts say. "Although to the naked eye these behaviors may appear related, they are probably not that close," the Adlers said.

soundoff (1,093 Responses)
  1. Edward C

    This is the strangest article I have read in 2012!

    February 28, 2012 at 05:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paolo

      Very strange. A peek into madness.

      February 28, 2012 at 06:09 | Report abuse |
    • P.J.

      Hard to `peek` when you`ve plucked out your eyes.

      February 28, 2012 at 06:48 | Report abuse |
    • DM

      Yeah, I don't see where they are going with this article. haha

      February 28, 2012 at 09:34 | Report abuse |
    • MikeyNYC

      Perhaps those who pluck out their eyes do so because they have been subjected to wholly ridiculous pseudo-news stories that are so unnecessary they can't ever imagine of having to read such a thing again.

      February 28, 2012 at 09:41 | Report abuse |
    • rrnyc

      Agreed Edward – how does this make the home page anyhow?

      February 28, 2012 at 10:22 | Report abuse |
    • Douglas

      Wow...this article opens up with "Whod've thunk it that most people pluckin' out their eyes DIDN'T do it because of them thar ol' old greek myths?!" Sheesh...the fact that we have to clarify that ANYTHING outside of severe mental disturbance isn't involved says a lot about how little we're aware of and/or regard mental health in this country.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:33 | Report abuse |
  2. Jenna

    I wish I could un-read this article – it made my stomach lurch.

    February 28, 2012 at 05:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Big Country

      Had the exact same response. Repulsing.

      February 28, 2012 at 07:43 | Report abuse |
    • PinkStapler

      What has been seen cannot be unseen. *pun intended*

      ps...totally agree! Bleh!

      February 28, 2012 at 09:42 | Report abuse |
  3. LOW LYF


    February 28, 2012 at 06:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • djsteviemac

      I'll Keep an eye open for a couple.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:18 | Report abuse |
  4. Aacon

    I thought it was supposed to be Hell not " hell " lol .

    February 28, 2012 at 06:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Aaron

    Move along people nothing to "see" here.

    February 28, 2012 at 06:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Don

    The authors fail to mention that attempts to pluck out the eyes are reported to be not uncommon with psychosis patients who are given SSRI antidepressants (yet the patients are never told this in advance).

    February 28, 2012 at 06:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cp

      Source? Link?

      February 28, 2012 at 07:51 | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      Wow, you are a benefactor of humanity. Please publish your important research. Or link to it, or prove it in some way.

      February 28, 2012 at 08:36 | Report abuse |
    • NB

      I've worked with many, many patients on SSRIs and never once have seen one try to mutilate their own eyes. To say it isn't "completely uncommon" is totally incorrect. It is, in fact, very uncommon. 27 million people in the US alone are on SSRIs. How many would you expect to be plucking out their eyes if it was, as you state, not uncommon?

      February 28, 2012 at 08:55 | Report abuse |
  7. Don

    That should be "certain" SSRI antidepressants.

    February 28, 2012 at 06:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. smass

    I've had this happen in the ER I worked in...one of the more "HOLY *&%^" moments. Took everyone off their game for a while.. except the optho residents!!

    February 28, 2012 at 06:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. reason

    They said two-thirds had religious delusions. Are there any religious beliefs that are NOT delusional?

    February 28, 2012 at 06:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. ML

    Must be a really slow news day!

    February 28, 2012 at 07:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mparr22

      god i hate it when people say that

      February 28, 2012 at 07:25 | Report abuse |
    • Trollbane

      It's not news, it's a medical story. The news is back on page 1.

      February 28, 2012 at 09:05 | Report abuse |
  11. Hot Carl

    I never slept with a pig, but I woke up with a few! I had to chew my own arm off to get away in the morning without waking it up.

    February 28, 2012 at 07:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. longtooth

    Thanks for ruining my breakfast.

    February 28, 2012 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Eyebalz

      I don't SEE the POINT of this EXPOSE.

      February 28, 2012 at 08:57 | Report abuse |
  13. Ang

    was this article really necessary ?

    February 28, 2012 at 07:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ScaredSocietyConsumes

      Yes. In an economic depression you need to be traumatized in order to encourage consumption.

      February 28, 2012 at 08:56 | Report abuse |
  14. Jorge

    Perhaps this is a primeval, subconscious emergency drive targeted towards species preservation, a way in which the psychotic individual reverts the harm which he would enact on others, upon himself, relieving destructive tension by drastically reducing his/her opportunity to hurt those around him/her and to reproduce others with his/her biologically catastrophic traits. Perhaps Darwin was more right than he imagined.

    February 28, 2012 at 07:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bubba

      "Perhaps Darwin was more right than he imagined" About what? Darwin's whole thesis was that the organism most fit for the ecological niche survives. People who are batpoop crazy and poke out their eyes aren't likely to reproduce; so that gene would be selected out. In other words, we descend from people who DIDN'T do that.

      February 28, 2012 at 08:58 | Report abuse |
  15. Feast of Beast


    February 28, 2012 at 07:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. rtbrno65

    What the heck is on my neck.

    February 28, 2012 at 08:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • djsteviemac

      An Eyeball

      February 28, 2012 at 10:13 | Report abuse |
  17. Fred

    ... and the point of this article is??? Yeah CNN – we all needed to know this. Bottom scraping again.

    February 28, 2012 at 08:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. pickles

    At least this article was not about people plucking other people's eyes out. That will probably be for next week.

    February 28, 2012 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ScaredSociety

      Surely. Now that CNN has planed the idea in the heads of our disturbed society.

      February 28, 2012 at 08:55 | Report abuse |
    • djsteviemac

      I know Mike Tyson likes ears, How does he feel about eyes.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:21 | Report abuse |
  19. Bobbie

    In the world of behavioral health this is one thing I have not seen so far. Will share with my clinical teams.

    February 28, 2012 at 08:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. David

    Well, thanks for the nightmare fuel CNN.

    February 28, 2012 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ScaredSociety

      That's CNN's job.. as an extension of the CIA... to keep us scared... and off balance... wake up.

      February 28, 2012 at 08:53 | Report abuse |
    • Trollbane

      "That's CNN's job.. as an extension of the CIA" ScaredStupid there is going to be pulling his eyes out pretty soon unless his meds kick in.

      February 28, 2012 at 09:08 | Report abuse |
  21. Spence

    In Norse mythology, Odinn plucked out his own eye to gain magical knowledge; in many Stone Age societies there is proof that they practiced a primitive form of trepanation, which is sometimes referred to as gaining the mystical Third Eye. I think that the researchers need to go back and rethink their assertion that in "no recorded culture" is the eye ritually mutilated, unless they're only referring to "modern" cultures; the eye and its loss has significant meaning in many shamanistic societies.

    February 28, 2012 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BrainiacYurKnot

      Thanks. Give this practice credence. Maybe your kids will start doing to be cool in school. Rim job.

      February 28, 2012 at 08:52 | Report abuse |
    • rama dev

      "The authors noted in a 2008 study that in no recorded culture is the eye ritually mutilated; in fact, it is the only external body part for which this is the case."

      On what grounds did they disqualify the "eye tattoo"? Seems to be the ritual of choice in some places such as prison these days. A quick search with any engine will pull out a plethora of freaky tinted eyeballs. Viewer discretion is advised!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:32 | Report abuse |
  22. Billythrowtheballatmyhead

    Someone was PAID money to write this study?


    February 28, 2012 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • PullAdlersLicense

      Because... they're Jewish... duh...

      February 28, 2012 at 08:51 | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      Probably because they don't work for free. Would you have analyzed all those records for nothing?

      February 28, 2012 at 09:01 | Report abuse |
  23. Oedipus

    I wish I had known about this and a lot of other things much sooner. It might have saved me a lot of trouble.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Bill

    "I see", said the blind man to the deaf man

    February 28, 2012 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. FauxNews

    50 cases in 40 years??? Mostly crazy people who don't know what they are doing. This is hardly worth reporting. There are more traffic deaths in New York on one weekend.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. MyEye..

    Where is that eye
    you spherical reception

    cones and rods, i cast thee to hell

    February 28, 2012 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Joe

    What a pleasant read as I consume my morning cereal.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. James

    Yeah, I'll be making double sure to wear my saftey glasses in the shop this evening.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. agathokles

    So.... let me see if I've understood this correctly. The researchers have discovered that people who pluck their eyes out are psychotic. Brilliant! Who would have known?!

    February 28, 2012 at 09:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. jdog

    What the......??? I mean....why does this need to appear anywhere OTHER than a medical or psychiatric journal...how have I now been better informed of this pressing issues...RIDICULOUS...but if it BLEEDS IT READS or something like that, eh CNN....

    February 28, 2012 at 09:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. TaterTot

    These Grapes are very hard to swallow now.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Howard Feinski

    "Patients should always consult with an ophthalmic surgeon immediately" before thinking about plucking out their eyes.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Dave

    I thought for sure these patients were forced to watch Whitney. That would explain it (ears, too, probably).

    February 28, 2012 at 10:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Holly

    Poor things probably had just watched one of the Republican's debates and could no longer tollerate more in the coming months.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. JAB62

    "Although to the naked eye these behaviors may appear related, they are probably not that close," the Adlers said.
    No pun intended.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Randy G

    What has been read, cannot be unread.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. CJ

    This made me laugh:

    "Patients should always consult with an ophthalmic surgeon immediately, and they should get prophylactic antibiotics and corticosteroids."

    As if patients who are so far gone that they're gouging out their own eyes are going to think, "gosh, look what I just did! I'd better consult with an opthalmic surgeon!"

    But overall, this was an interesting article! It's always interesting to learn about people's motivations for their bizarre behaviors.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Martha M

    How scary. My husband had a work accident this year and ended up having to have his left eye removed and it was the most painful thing he has ever been through. I cannot imagine doing it to yourself on purpose.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Kim

    "Where we're going, we won't need eyes to see."

    ~Event Horizon

    February 28, 2012 at 10:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Ned Ryerson

    And here I thought it was about people tripping on acid who cut their eyes out so they stop "seeing" a bad hallucination.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. DJCowboy

    I'd give my left eye for a night with Emma Stone

    February 28, 2012 at 10:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. TA

    Very disturbing. Not sure why they even publish this kind of junk. Who do they think wants to read about this? Some reallty bored/weird journalist got a hold of a pen.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. The Jackdaw

    Well, the jurry is back. This is the best article EVER!!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Guest

    Obviously people will take their eyes out if they had a glimpse of people like the cast of Jersey Shore, Octomom, or when I start running on the beach with a speedo on.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Ned Ryerson

    A couple of them tried to cut they johnson's off. Yeow! Cut they hands off, bite they tongue off... oh boy.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The Jackdaw

      And some did it for Jesus!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:32 | Report abuse |
  46. Liz

    Why are so many upset that this article would appear on CNN? I had never heard of this phenomenon and found the information interesting. I appreciate the work that goes into these studies. There are people out here who are interested in more than who killed whom last night or which rap star is putting out a new single next Tuesday.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Crowded

    What do you want to bet that after this article there will be an upsurge in this type of self mutilation. Psychiatrists have pointed out how the incidence of 'cutting' mutilations by teens has increased dramatically since the late 90s when the behavior first became a subject of discussion on the talk shows and so on. From a rarely observed abberation of behavior to as much as ten percent of teens at least doing it to a certain extent in less than twenty years. A friend of mine who is a clinical social worker said in her career from the mid 70s to the mid 90s she saw maybe 3 very disturbed patients doing the behavior, now almost every kid who comes to see her is doing it. Not that I believe masses of people will start plucking out their eyes, but I bet the incidence will definitely increase.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Karpal

    "Why some people take out their own eyes"...... Uh, I have a guess. Because they are nuts.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Cyclops

    I'm going to keep an eye on this to see if such cases increase.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. JeramieH

    Millions will die of cancer, and we're writing articles about 50 people that plucked out their eyes in the past 50 years?

    February 28, 2012 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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