Eye Strain

The term eye strain is frequently used by people to describe a group of vague symptoms that are related to use of the eyes. Eye strain is a symptom, not an eye disease. Eye strain occurs when your eyes get tired from intense use, such as driving a car for extended periods, reading, or working at the computer. If you have any eye discomfort caused by looking at something for a long time, you can call it eye strain.

Although eye strain can be annoying, it usually is not serious and goes away once you rest your eyes. In some cases, signs and symptoms of eye strain are a sign of an underlying eye condition that needs treatment. Although you may not be able to change the nature of your job or all the factors that can cause eye strain, you can take steps to reduce eye strain.

Eye strain facts

  • The term eye strain describes a group of symptoms which occur in some people after extended use of the eyes.
  • Although eye strain can be uncomfortable, it does not lead to any eye damage.
  • Extended computer use or inadequate or excessive lighting may cause eye strain, but there are no permanent consequences of this.
  • Symptoms of eye strain can include
  • headaches,
  • blurring of the vision,
  • feelings of dryness, and
  • other discomfort, but eye strain will not damage your eyes or change their anatomy.

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Common causes of eyestrain include:

  • Looking at digital device screens
  • Reading without pausing to rest your eyes
  • Driving long distances and doing other activities involving extended focus
  • Being exposed to bright light or glare
  • Straining to see in very dim light
  • Having an underlying eye problem, such as dry eyes or uncorrected vision (refractive error)
  • Being stressed or fatigued
  • Exposure to dry moving air from a fan, heating or air-conditioning system

Computer use

Extended use of computers and other digital devices is one of the most common causes of eyestrain. The American Optometric Association calls this computer vision syndrome, or digital eyestrain. People who look at screens two or more hours in a row every day are at greatest risk of this condition.

Computer use strains eyes more than reading print material because people tend to:

  • Blink less while using computers (blinking is key to moistening the eyes)
  • View digital screens at less-than-ideal distances or angles
  • Use devices that have glare or reflection
  • Use devices with poor contrast between the text and the background

In some cases, an underlying eye problem, such as eye muscle imbalance or uncorrected vision, can cause or worsen computer eyestrain.

Some other factors that can make the condition worse include:

  • Glare on your screen
  • Poor posture
  • Setup of your computer work station
  • Circulating air, such as from air conditioning or a nearby fan

You are a potential candidate for eyestrain if:

  • you spend more than four hours per day in front of a computer screen
  • you engage in other activities that make the eyes work hard, such as reading for extended amounts of time, or even watching too much TV
  • you live in a dry climate
  • you haven’t checked with your eye doctor to see if you need a refraction - basically an eye exam - for mid-length vision.

Eyestrain signs and symptoms include:

  • Sore, tired, burning or itching eyes
  • Watery or dry eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Headache
  • Sore neck, shoulders or back
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling that you cannot keep your eyes open

Your eye doctor will ask you questions about factors that might be causing your symptoms. He or she will perform an eye exam, including testing your vision.

The following are remedies you can try at home. However, it’s always a good idea to check with your optometrist or ophthalmologist to be sure you are receiving the care you need for your eyes.

At Home:

If you spend a lot of time at the computer:

  • Reduce overhead lighting and try to use more natural light. Harsh light is hard on the eyes.
  • Turn the backlight down on your computer so that it your monitor isn't at its maximum brightness.
  • Clean the dust off of your screen/monitor. Dust on the screen can make it harder to see and read on your computer.
  • Lower your computer screen so that you actually look down at it, especially if you wear bifocals (or progressive lenses). This way, you can reduce the stress placed on your neck and back by not craning your head to see what you are doing.
  • Invest in a pair of computer readers. Many dollar stores and office supply stores have glasses with a special coating on them for the computer (an anti-reflective coating). Be sure you know your prescription, however. You really should check with your eye doctor or optician if you are at all in doubt.
  • Take breaks about every 20 minutes or so. This can mean that you look away from your screen for half a minute, or that you get up and walk around a bit before returning to your work.

Other eye strain remedies:

  • Do different eye exercises. Begin by squinting each eye one by one, and moving your eyes in circles several times daily. You can also try closing your eyes and and then moving your eyes around with the lids closed.
  • Make sure to blink frequently to replenish the tears in your eyes to keep them moist.
  • Eat lots of eye-healthy foods including carrots, pumpkin, blueberries, and even taking fish oil and vitamin C supplements (but be sure to check with your eye doctor to be sure what you’re doing is right for you). Bilberry and chromium are great sources for helping the eyes.
  • Get over-the-counter lubricant eye drops and put the drops in your eyes beforeyou start working.
  • Drink plenty of water while you’re working. Staying hydrated will help your eyes stay moist as well.
  • Humidify the air around you if you live in a dry climate or if the air is dry. Use a humidifier or let the steam accumulate from a shower.

There are some simple things you can do to help prevent eyestrain. Some of them you can even start doing today.

1. Look away frequently, or the 20-20-20 rule

Often eyestrain occurs when you engage in a single activity for too long a period of time without a break. You should shift your focus to something other than the activity every 20 minutes. What you focus on should be 20 feet away, and you should look at it for at least 20 seconds. This is known as the 20-20-20 rule.

You should not only look away every 20 minutes, but also make sure to turn away from an intense activity for several hours during the day. If you have to work at a screen or drive a long distance for multiple hours, make sure to balance that activity with others that demand different uses of your eyes. For example, take a walk outside in the natural light during your lunch break if you’ve spent the whole morning working on a computer.

 2. Position your screen

Make sure you’re looking at your digital device at the correct distance and in the proper position. The screen should be a few feet away from your eyes, or about arm’s length. You should view the screen at the level of your eyes or slightly below them. This goes for handheld digital devices, too: They should be read at below eye level.

Another handy tip for digital devices is to enlarge the text on the screen to best suit your comfort level. You can likely adjust text size in the settings of your device.

3. Find the right light

Lighting can cause eyestrain. It can either be too dim or too bright, depending on the activity. Light should come from behind you if you’re focusing intensely on something like reading. Dimming the lights may help reduce eyestrain when watching TV.

Make sure the screens that you’re viewing are adequately lit as well. Adjust the brightness as needed. Glare can contribute to eyestrain, so try shading windows or using filters to reduce glare on your digital device.

4. Multitask correctly

It’s common to need to use printed matter or other materials when working on a computer. For example, you may need to transcribe a form or notes. If you have to refer to documents and such while using your computer, you should position them to avoid having to move your eyes, neck, and head too frequently. A document stand can help you place materials between your keyboard and your monitor, resulting in less eyestrain.

5. Use eye drops

Intense focus, particularly when viewing a screen, can result in a dramatic reduction in how many times you blink per minute. When you blink less, your eyes can get dry and irritated. You can resolve this with the use of eye drops like artificial tears. You can also try to blink more often when using a screen, which can prevent the symptom from occurring.

6. Check the air

You may find that you spend time in a place that has poor air quality. Dry or polluted environments and places with fans and heating and cooling units may cause eyestrain. You may want to:

  • improve the air with a humidifier
  • turn down the heating and cooling system
  • relocate to a spot that doesn’t have the same air issues

7. Wear proper eyewear

Work with your doctor to determine if you need special eyewear to reduce eyestrain. You may even need specialized lenses, devices, or eye therapy for the activity that causes strain. Certain coatings and tints for lenses may help your eyes. Or you may find that you need to cut the time you wear contact lenses to help rest your eyes.

8. Reduce time spent on a single activity

A simple way to avoid eyestrain is to limit the time you’re exposed to a single activity that requires intense focus. Try to spend less time on digital devices.

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