Diagram depicting Epiphora
Young child with epiphora

A watery eye can be the product of excess tear production (hyperlacrimation), disturbed ocular surface tear flow (lid mal-position) or disturbed outflow (epiphora). Occasionally all three mechanisms can be involved. Epiphora is due to some form of compromised drainage which may be caused by: a) punctal phimosis, b) canalicular stenosis and obstruction or c) naso-lacrimal duct blockage. Obstruction of the naso-lacrimal duct may be congenital, in which case it is most usually due to delayed canalization of the valve of Hasner, or it may be acquired.

In adults the commonest cause of epiphora is primary acquired nasolacrimal duct obstruction (NLDO) which is associated with inflammation of the naso-lacrimal duct.

Epiphora in the presence of a patent lacrimal system to syringing and in the absence of excess tear production or lid malposition is defined as functional NLDO. Management of less common causes of epiphora such as congenital facial abnormalities and secondary acquired obstructions are not discussed in this article.

Epiphora in Children

Symptomatic NLDO occurs in approximately 5-6% of infants. A sticky, watery eye with positive regurgitation on pressure over the lacrimal sac confirms the diagnosis. Other diagnostic measures such as probing or dacryocystography (DCG) may be combined with treatment under general anaesthesia.

As there is a high spontaneous rate of remission (60-90%) in the first year of life, probing should be delayed until 10-12 months of age1, 2. Parents can be instructed to undertake lacrimal sac massage during the intervening period. Earlier probing is only justified if there is severe recurrent infection.

Probing of the naso-lacrimal duct is the first line of treatment3. However probe failure increases with age and is known to double every 6 months 1. For this reason and in cases of persistent epiphora, a second probing two to four months later is advocated. In failed cases with persistent epiphora and recurrent infection, it may be necessary to perform a dacryocystorhinostomy (DCR). Alternatively bicanalicular silicone intubation with Crawford, Juneman or Ritleng tubes can be carried out with a claimed success rate of 88-95%4, 5.

Epiphora in Adults

Causes of disturbed ocular surface tear flow such as lid malposition (euryblepharon, punctal ectropion, punctal phimosis) or ocular surface irritation (dry eye, blepharitis) should be excluded first.

Identification of the site of the obstruction causing epiphora is most important. This information has been shown to dramatically increase the chance of successful treatment.


Identification of the site of blockage requires one or more of the following tests.

Dye tests

Two or three drops of sodium fluorescein are instilled into the lateral fornix. Dye may drain completely (dye disappearance) and be collected by a swab at the inferior meatus (Jones I), when the drainage system is patent. No more tests are necessary at this stage. With compromised drainage, dye usually overflows medially onto the cheek. In the presence of lid malpositions it overflows medially, centrally or laterally, according to the lid position.

The ocular surface is examined simultaneously. Conjunctival and corneal staining should be noted to rule out ocular surface disease. On the whole dye tests are objective and not very reliable.

Syringing and probing

The lower puncti are gently dilated under topical anaesthesia. Next, one or two mls of local anaesthesia are injected using a lacrimal cannula. If there is regurgitation, the largest lacrimal probe which can be inserted without damaging the annulus is inserted. If it enters the sac without any resistance, the site of blockage is most probably NLD. If a site of resistance is noted, the probe is grasped with forceps at the punctum and withdrawn. The exposed end is measured to identify accurately the site of blockage. A smaller size probe is then inserted. Resistance at the same site reveals a complete canalicular obstruction. In the case of stenosis the smaller probe can be passed through and into the sac. Syringing of the NLD then follows. The same examination is repeated for the upper puncti. An experienced examiner can gather enough information at this stage to plan treatment.

Macro dacryocystography (MDCG) and Scintigraphy

These further investigations may be used to confirm the diagnosis. MDCG is particularly useful to reveal details of lacrimal sac anatomy and the site of naso-lacrimal duct obstruction8. MDCG with a delayed erect film 5 minutes after injection of contrast medium can detect functional NLDO by showing delayed clearance of the lacrimal sac9. Scintigraphy is mainly used to confirm a diagnosis of functional blockage when there is delayed or no outflow of radioactive media in the presence of a normal DCG.

Canalicular Endoscopy

More recent investigative tools are available such as the microcanalicular endoscope, which can demonstrate the site and type of blockage. However, experienced lacrimal surgeons can usually gather sufficient information by simply probing the canaliculi.


Nasolacrimal duct blockage

External DCR is still the most popular choice for NLDO and dacryocystitis and has a success rate of 80-95%. If there is canalicular damage or a narrow upper nasal cavity it may be necessary to insert a silicone tube. Day-case external DCR under local anaesthesia is gaining popularity.

Endonasal DCR is acknowledged to have a lower success rate. Power tool and laser assisted DCR's can be performed as day case procedures and can be less time consuming.

Balloon dilatation dacryoplasty has also been shown to be effective in partial nasolacrimal duct obstruction with a claimed success rate of 60%.

Canalicular obstr.

Canalicular blockage

More complex surgical procedures are necessary if intubation is not successful. The micro-surgical repair of canaliculi has been proposed with a canaliculo-DCR being reserved for distal canalicular blockage. Retrograde intubation of the canaliculi combined with DCR is used for proximal canalicular obstruction and punctal agenesis, with a success rate of 60-70%13 . During a standard DCR the inner opening of the common canaliculi is identified and probed towards the blocked canaliculi. On reaching the site of the blockage a pseudo punctum is fashioned. A silicone tube is then inserted through the same route.

Canalicular stenosis

Silicone tube insertion during DCR is necessary. Alternatively canaliculoplasty by closed technique bicanalicular silicone tube insertion can be performed. A success rate of up to 70% has been reported14, 15. Early anecdotal reports indicate that endocanalicular Erbium laser, used prior to intubation, has an arguably (but as yet unproven) better outcome.

In cases of failure of the above procedures, a by-pass operation is the only remaining option. Conjunctivo-DCR with a Lester-Jones tube can be performed as a closed technique in the presence of a previous osteotomy.

Functional blockage

Functional blockage

Functional blockage due to preductal or ductal narrowing, identified by delayed MDCG and scintigraphy can be treated by DCR and a silicone stent. Many cases of functional blockage have also been successfully treated using lid shortening and punctal snip procedures16. It seems that in such cases other underlying causes have been responsible such as punctal phimosis. Functional blockage due to pump failure (facial nerve palsy) might require by-pass lacrimal surgery. Treatment remains controversial.



Ocular surface irritation and lid mal-positions should be addressed initially. After identification of the site of blockage an appropriate plan of action should be adopted.

Probing of the canaliculi in experienced hands is an effective diagnostic tool.

Partial canalicular blockage can be treated by either DCR and silicone tube insertion or by closed technique canaliculoplasty involving bicanalicular insertion of a stent into the naso-lacrimal duct.

Extensive canalicular blockage requires more complex surgery. Canaliculo-DCR for distal obstruction and DCR with retrograde intubation for proximal obstruction.

Closed technique by-pass surgery with a Lester-Jones tube is the last resort when other techniques have failed to achieve recanalisation of the drainage system.


After your operation you should not blow your nose for two weeks

You should not bend or lift for one week.

We recommend that you sleep with three pillows and try and keep you head above your heart at all times for three nights.

The tubes are likely to remain in situ for at least 6 weeks.

If the tubes migrate from their original position then please let us know. The tubes are not draining tubes they are a stent.

It is normal to have minor spotting of blood +/- clots for the first few days after surgery. Thereafter it should settle. If you get persistent haemorrhage then please ring Spire Norwich Hospital 01603 456181



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