What is eye strain and how can you prevent it? – Forbes Health

Whether you work long hours in front of a computer, stare at a phone or tablet for a long time, drive long distances at night, or even need a new prescription for your glasses or contact lenses, it is likely that you have experienced eye strain.

Eye strain is a common and uncomfortable phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent due to the surge in the use of digital devices. However, there are many ways to prevent it and lower your chances of developing debilitating symptoms.

What is eye strain?

Eye strain is “a feeling of fatigue and pain that usually occurs as a result of prolonged concentrated activities such as working at the computer or reading,” says Vicente Diaz, MD, ophthalmologist at Yale Medicine and assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. . Driving (especially long distances) and classwork (like reading a projector or a blackboard) can also lead to eye strain, he adds.

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Neda Shamie, MD, LASIK, a cataract and cornea surgeon at the Maloney-Shamie Vision Institute in Los Angeles adds that eye strain is a term to describe a collection of symptoms, not a disease.

During intense concentration, the natural rhythm of the blinking of the eye slows down, making the eyes more dry, uncomfortable and tired. “You might have a hard time concentrating,” she says. “The eyes are tired and you may need to close your eyes for more comfort. ”

Eye strain can also be linked to eye muscle fatigue. When we focus on closer objects like screens, our eye muscles have to work to maintain sharp vision, which is called accommodation.

“Muscles can spasm, in the same way that your biceps can spasm after intense exercise, and the eyes have trouble relaxing and focusing at a distance,” she says.

Digital eye tension

Digital eye strain (DES) is the type of eye strain that occurs specifically as a result of digital use, including prolonged use of a computer, phone and tablet, explains Dr. Shamie. It can also be called computer vision syndrome. The root cause of DES is the combination of looking at a nearby object that requires high visual attention for an extended period of time, without pausing. Screen glare is also a component, as it makes the eye uncomfortable.

In addition, when viewing a screen, letters and numbers are not as precise or defined as on a printed page and the level of contrast of the material against the background is reduced, depending on the American Optometric Association. Distances and viewing angles also differ from other tasks, such as reading something up close and directly, resulting in varying focus and eye movement requirements that can strain the visual system as well.

Due to the increase in screen time and the prolonged use of computers, phones and tablets, dry eyes are also becoming a permanent problem, increasingly affecting younger patients. A 2018 study in BMJ open ophthalmology found that DES can affect up to half of computer users.

Causes of eye strain

While staring at a screen is a major cause of eye strain, it’s not the only one. Other causes include:

  • Read with subdued light: Reading in dim light can cause eye strain due to the difficulty in keeping your eyes focused on the page, says Dr. Shamie.
  • Targeted tasks: Reading in general, for example, “can also make someone blink less,” says Dr Shamie. “This can then lead to eye strain. “
  • Driving long distances or any other task requiring a prolonged time of concentration: Long-distance journeys can often lead to eye strain, as the eyes often have trouble focusing on the horizon, especially after long periods of intense concentration, says Dr Shamie.
  • Have an underlying vision problem or wear the wrong prescription for contact lenses or glasses: Wearing the wrong prescription, whether in contact lenses or glasses, forces the eyes to try to focus with this correction, says Dr Shamie. “It uses the focusing muscles in the eye as well as the muscles that help squint the eyes to bring an image into focus, causing tension and headaches. “
  • Stress or fatigue: Stress or fatigue is often the result of long projects, editing tasks and countless hours of working on the computer, staring at screens with little break, says Dr. Shamie, “which in turn results in eye fatigue caused by dry eyes “.

Symptoms of eye strain

If you have any of the symptoms below, you may be suffering from eye strain.

  • Burning, fluctuating vision and redness: Due to the dryness that can occur with eye strain, burning, fluctuating vision (i.e. changes in the clarity of vision), and red eyes are common signs of eye strain, explains the Dr Shamie.
  • Difficulty concentrating: A key symptom of eye strain is difficulty concentrating when looking at something in the distance. If the eye muscles are overworked after prolonged screen time, the muscles will go into an accommodation spasm, even blurring your distance vision.
  • Headache and sore eyebrows: Due to muscle spasms and dry eyes, headaches and sore eyebrows signal eye strain, according to Dr. Shamie.
  • Non-ocular symptoms: Some non-ocular symptoms specific to DES include a stiff neck, general fatigue, and back pain due to the physical strain that can occur when attempting to focus visually, according to a 2018 review in Clinical and Experimental Optometry.

The best ways to prevent and reduce eye strain

There are no long term health consequences of eye strain. “It usually doesn’t have a long-term impact on the eyes, but can be debilitating in the moment,” says Dr. Diaz. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to prevent or reduce eye strain.

Reduce the use of digital devices

The best way to reduce digital eye strain would be to reduce the use of digital devices when possible, says Dr. Shamie. “Alternatively, I recommend the 20/20/20 rule with digital devices,” she says. Every 20 minutes of looking at a screen, look away for 20 seconds from a distance of 20 feet. “In doing so, the eyes may have a break from the close focus which causes the focus muscles to spasm.”

Lubricate the eyes periodically

Using artificial tears (or eye drops) is an easy way to fight dry eye, which is a “big component of eye strain,” says Dr. Diaz. “There is research that shows that the blink rate decreases when the person is doing concentrated activity. ”

Have adequate lighting

Because eye strain is more common at night or in low light, as it makes it harder for the eyes to focus, good lighting can make a huge difference in preventing eye strain, says Dr. Diaz.

Strategic placement of the screen

Dr Shamie also stresses the importance of positioning yourself well in front of a screen. “Place the screen lower than eye level to prevent the eyes from having to lift up to the screen,” she suggests. By looking down when looking at your screen, instead of looking directly in front or up to see your screen, your eye muscles will be in a more comfortable position.

Try screen coverage

Anti-glare screen covers, which can be purchased for a smartphone, tablet, or computer, can sometimes come in handy, notes Dr Shamie. This is because too much glare can make it difficult to see objects on the screen, forcing your eyes to strain to focus.

Take frequent breaks

Try not to spend hours on a screen. “Taking a five-minute break every 30 minutes or so will help drastically reduce fatigue and tension,” says Dr. Diaz.

Do blue light glasses help fight digital eye strain?

In recent years, anti-blue light glasses (glasses with so-called filters that block blue light) have been marketed as a way to prevent eye strain and other types of computer-related eye damage. However, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, they are not effective in preventing digital eye strain. Instead, the symptoms of DES relate to how digital devices are used, not the blue light that comes out of them.

Digital eye strain is caused by more than just glare from a screen, and that’s why blue light glasses are not a complete solution. Instead, eye strain and discomfort is caused by prolonged periods at a short working distance with a very visually demanding task, so the best way to prevent or reduce symptoms is to take breaks and reduce time spent looking at devices.


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Abusharha, AA. Changes in blinking frequency and eye symptoms during different reading tasks. Clin Optom (Auckl). 2017; 9: 133-138.

Coles-Brennan C, Sulley A, Young G. Managing digital eye strain. Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology. 2018; 18-29.

Porter, D. Blue light and digital eye strain. American Academy of Ophthalmology

Patricia J. Callender