Do you find yourself rubbing your eyes more than normal? Any new headaches, neck pain or back pain? Are you spending a lot more time with screens than normal? You could be experiencing “computer vision syndrome,” also commonly known as digital eye strain.
“Our eyes were not designed to use computers especially for long periods of time, and as a result, many people who spend long hours reading or working on a computer experience eye discomfort and vision problems,” said said Barbara L. Horn, O.D., President of the American Optometric Association. “Focusing on tiny type for hours on end can cause eye strain, fatigue and headaches. Staring at screens for long periods can also leave eyes parched, red and gritty-feeling,” Horn added.
The condition is characterized by a wide range of symptoms and seems to be more prevalent at the moment, as people spend more time on screens while working from home, for entertainment and for staying in touch with friends and family.
“Its common even in a non-Covid times, but for the last 6-8 weeks this seems to be incredibly common,” said Scott Drexler, O.D., Assistant Professor of Opthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. “We have been doing telehealth appointments and the most common complaints we’ve been having are related to blurry vision and headaches,” Drexler added.
Limiting screen time is definitely the best thing to help if achievable, but especially for people working from home, doing this to reduce symptoms may not be practical at the moment. But if screen time reduction is not possible, the ‘20-20-20’ rule is worth trying.
“What we are picking up on virtual visits is that people have to work, its not an option to not use screens as much right now. Try to take a break every 20 mins and look at object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This releases muscles, straightens posture and reminds people to blink,” said Drexler.
Dry eyes are frequently a result of not blinking enough and perhaps surprisingly, we blink approximately 50% less when staring at screens, just 5-7 times a minute compared to 12-14 times per minute when not looking at screens. There are also several other steps individuals can take to prevent or reduce the effect of digital eye strain.
“Prevention or reduction of the vision problems associated with digital eye strain involves taking steps to control lighting and glare on the device screen, establishing proper working distances and posture for screen viewing, and assuring that even minor vision problems are properly corrected,” said Horn.
One of the easiest of these to address is the brightness and background lighting in rooms where screens are being used.
“Controlling brightness and contrast is really important and having the room lights down or off isn’t great. What you want to do is match your screen brightness to ambient lighting. Screen in bright room? You need a brighter screen. Dim screens should match ambient lighting,” said Drexler.
Although some people previously working from home have begun to return to work as various lockdowns and restrictions are lifted, many will continue to work from home and live with increased hours at their screens and probable run-ins with digital eye strain. The good news is that most of these symptoms, although uncomfortable, are not expected to cause any permanent effect on vision for most people, but they may persist if no changes are made.
“Some individuals may experience continued reduced visual abilities, such as blurred distance vision, even after stopping work at a computer. If nothing is done to address the cause of the problem, the symptoms will continue to recur and perhaps worsen with future digital screen use,” said Horn.
It isn’t just adults who experience digital eye strain either and there are concerns about the eye health of younger people who may be spending more time indoors than normal.
“For kids having them do a lot more schooling at home and times on screens comes with an extra concern. When their eyes get tired, adults will get up and walk away and take a break, but kids won’t do that, we need to help them regulate and take breaks to make sure they are okay. Kids will just push through and end up with a headache and irritable,” said Drexler.
So what should you do if you are concerned about your eye health? Horn urges people to make an appointment with their local doctor of optometry. Optometry offices previously reduced their in-person services due to the pandemic, but many have now started to re-open.
“States are beginning to reopen health care access and eye doctors across the country are starting to safely provide comprehensive eye health examinations once again. Patients looking to schedule their annual eye examinations or other services should contact their local doctor of optometry, who may be employing in-person and/or telehealth protocols to provide eye health and vision care,” said Horn.