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Feeling the strain: In the Computer Age, digital eye strain has become an epidemic

Posted by By Marie Johnson for CL-Online on

Kristi Brend stares at a screen all day, every day, and it's taking a toll on her eyes.

The Detroit Lakes optician spends several hours a day in front of a computer at work, and then cell phones, tablets and TV screens all vie for her attention at home.

By the end of the day, her eyes are red and dry, and her vision is blurred.

She, like a growing number of people across the country, suffers from digital eye strain, also referred to as Computer Vision Syndrome. The condition is caused by prolonged computer use, and in this age of technology, it's becoming harder and harder to avoid.

"It's very common, and it's trending up," according to Dr. Alexander Moses, an ophthalmologist with Essentia Health-St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes. "More and more of our jobs are on the computer or at an office space, and that's a big driver of the eye strain epidemic."

Studies have shown that as many as 60-70 percent of office workers have some sort of eye strain. Moses said three out of every four patients he sees show at least one symptom of the condition.

Brend's blurred vision and dry eyes are common symptoms, but general fatigue, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain are also typical. A hallmark of eye strain is that symptoms and discomfort levels get progressively worse as the day goes on.

Similar to carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries, digital eye strain happens when the eyes follow the same path over and over again. The focusing muscle inside the eye is just like any other muscle of the body, so it gets tired with extended use.

"We spend so much time focusing on things at arms' length," said Moses. "We're looking at one thing very close, for a long period of time."

When that one thing is a computer screen, it creates more problems than if we were staring at papers or other materials or surfaces all day. New studies are showing that computer screens, as well as phones and other electronic devices, emit harmful wavelengths of blue light that may be damaging to the eyes, according to information from Essentia Health.

Computers also cause subtle air flow in front of the eyes, Moses said, and people blink less when they're using electronics, leading to or exacerbating dry eyes.

Things are worse for older adults, as the lenses in the eye become less flexible and computer work gets more difficult with age. But kids and teenagers are susceptible to digital eye strain, too, if they spend a lot of time staring at cell phones or tablets, using computers or watching TV up close to the screen, especially if the lighting and their posture are less than ideal.

What can be done about it?

Limiting screen time is the most obvious solution, but it's not a very realistic option for most people. The next best thing, Moses said, is to give your eye muscles regular breaks.

"We call it the 20-20-20 rule," he said.

It works like this: after 20 minutes of focusing on the computer, shift your gaze to something about 20 feet away, for the next 20 seconds.

People often say they don't have the time to do this, Moses said, but it's worth making time for, as it can make a significant difference in how your eyes feel by the end of the day.

"I compare it to flexing your arm all day; you can do it, but it gets sore," he said of staring at a screen all day. "If you take a break, you can keep it from getting tight."

Keeping the eyes moist also helps manage eye strain. Try and remember to blink often, and, if need be, use over-the-counter or prescription eye drops. Eyelid massage can also be helpful. If ignored for too long, dry eyes can become a chronic condition, so this is an important symptom to manage.

Another easy thing to do is rearrange your workspace with eye strain in mind. Even slight changes can make a big difference.

Work distance is a major factor in eye strain, according to Moses. Computer screens should be positioned slightly below eye level, and about two feet away from the face. If you're having to stretch your neck or strain your eyes to see what's on the screen, then you should tweak your monitor settings. Things like brightness, contrast and font size are all customizable; experiment with those until you find what works best for you.

Glare is another biggie. If you're able, change the lighting around you to reduce the effect of glare on your computer screen. Move the monitor away from windows, if that helps, or close shades. If overhead lights are too bright, try buying a shaded desk lamp that casts a softer glow more evenly across your desk. Another option is an anti-glare screen protector, a clear panel or filter that can be placed over a screen to help prevent sun and light glare.

Similarly, for kids, make sure any computers they regularly use are correctly positioned for them, and within the proper lighting. When kids are watching TV or playing video games, Moses said, "I advise backing them up onto the couch, so they're not right up in it."

If you wear glasses or contacts, make sure your prescription is up-to-date. Awareness is an important and often-overlooked first step in alleviating eye strain: Moses said sometimes people think their vision is blurry because their prescription is off, only to find out later that their real problem has been eye strain.

Whether you typically wear glasses or not, glasses specially made for computer work can be a useful tool in the fight against digital eye strain. Optical shops offer blue blocking lenses or coatings that can reduce exposure to the harmful wavelengths of blue light that are emitted by screens.

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Digital Eye Strain

Definition: A group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer, tablet, e-reader and cell phone use (from the American Optometric Association). A common condition. Also referred to as Computer Vision Syndrome.

Symptoms: Red eyes, dry eyes, headaches, fatigue, neck and shoulder pain

Solutions: Less screen time, regular breaks from the screen (the 20-20-20 rule), computer monitor positioned just below eye level and about two feet away from the face, customized screen settings, managed glare, eyes kept moist, prescription eyewear kept up-to-date, tinted lenses to filter out blue light