After a long day of work staring at a computer, you could be feeling a little worse for wear. You might be exhausted, your back and shoulders might be tense and your stress might be through the roof. And, when you turn off your monitor and head outside to go home, you might discover another ailment: Your eyes are dry, blurry and tired.
These symptoms are caused by a problem called eye strain. In our increasingly digital world, eye strain is, unfortunately, also increasingly common. If your job requires sitting in front of a computer or other kind of screen all day, it’s worth educating yourself about eye strain and its effects on your health.
Take a deeper look at the phenomenon and learn how you can protect your eyesight from digital screens.
Eye strain and its effects
Eye strain is a temporary condition in which the eyes get overexerted by focusing too hard. Many people experience eye strain after spending several consecutive hours in front of electronic devices, such as computers, phones, tablets or televisions. Focusing intensely on these objects can make your eyes feel tired, irritated or dry.
When you stare at a computer or focus on something for a long time, you tend to blink less often than you normally would, which can dry out your eyes. The “digital noise” emitted from a computer also makes it difficult for your eyes to focus. It makes them work harder to distinguish letters and numbers. Blue light emitted from these devices may also cause eye strain.
Anyone can develop eye strain, even if they never look at a screen during their work day. Although it is commonly related to staring at screens from computers, tablets and phones, eye strain can also occur after long periods of reading, writing and driving—anything where you’re staring at one thing for a long period of time. Some people may experience eye strain if they have long commutes or if their job requires spending long hours on the road.
The condition can lead to a variety of uncomfortable symptoms, including headaches, double vision, blurry vision and dry, itchy or burning eyes. Often, people who experience eye strain will also experience pain in the neck, shoulders or upper back. Eye strain has also been known to cause photophobia, which is when the eyes become hyper-sensitive to light. Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating and feeling like you can’t keep your eyes open.
Although these symptoms can be frustrating to deal with, they are usually not serious and will go away on their own in time. Resting your eyes for a while should be enough to clear up your symptoms, often within a matter of hours. If eye strain is a regular occurrence for you, it’s worth consulting an eye specialist to learn how you can prevent or minimize symptoms following certain activities. This can help boost productivity and relieve your discomfort.
Preventing and treating eye strain
There are many steps you can take to minimize the impact of eye strain. Many of these tips require simple lifestyle changes you can make every day. Here’s what you can do to keep your eyes healthy during work and other focus-heavy activities.
- Back up: Often, people who develop digital eye strain sit too close to the screen. For optimal viewing, you should position your monitor around 24 inches away from your face and at around eye level. Keeping things at eye level is crucial to prevent you from hunching over and moving your eyes in an unnatural way.
- Adjust the settings: When working on a digital device, adjust the settings to make text larger and contrast greater. These adjustments make it much easier for your eyes to read text, so they don’t struggle to focus on tiny letters. Some devices even have “night mode” settings that minimize blue light and make reading the screen easier on your vision.
- Take breaks: Whether you’re looking at a screen, a book, a journal or a phone, take frequent breaks. Stand up, walk around and look at something other than what you’re focusing on. Letting your eyes refocus this way can help alleviate strain. If you’re driving, make sure you’re stopping regularly to stretch your legs and look at something other than the road. You could even take a short nap if necessary.
- Use the 20-20-20 rule: The 20-20-20 rule means every 20 minutes, you look at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Following this rule can help ensure that you take vision breaks multiple times per hour and give your eyes the opportunity to refocus and rest while looking at something farther away.
- Apply artificial tears: Artificial tears and eye drops can help relieve dryness, itchiness and irritation by replenishing the moisture in your eyes as you work. Some eye drops are specially formulated to alleviate dryness caused by different things and are suitable for contact lens wearers.
- Use adequate lighting: You want to make sure you’re working in a room with adequate lighting so your eyes do not struggle to focus. If you’re working on a screen, make sure the light in the room is brighter than the screen. This will help reduce strain on your eyes.
- Wear blue light lenses: Specially formulated blue light glasses can help minimize the effects of potentially harmful blue light on your eyes while you work on a computer, tablet or phone. They may be a good idea if you use a computer regularly for work.
Consider visiting an eye doctor for an exam if your eye strain doesn’t go away within a few hours of stopping the activity that caused it. There may be something more severe going on with your eyes that will require professional help.
For many people, eye strain might seem like an inevitable consequence of work or their favorite activities. Eye strain is actually highly treatable, and you might be able to stop it altogether. By paying a little more attention to blinking and taking breaks from work, you can effectively prevent eye strain entirely or, at the very least, minimize uncomfortable symptoms.
Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in May 2019. It has been updated to include more relevant and comprehensive information.