Dealing With Eyestrain
You've been sitting at your computer for hours. You've got your ergonomic workstation, so your arms and wrists don't hurt. You've got your ergonomic chair with built in back support, so your back and shoulders don't hurt. And you've also accomplished all you set out to today. So you feel great. That is except for one thing...two actually. Your eyes are killing you.
A study conducted by Cornell University found that among office workers, eyestrain was a very common complaint. And the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety has stated that eyestrain and other vision-related physical problems (blurred vision, headaches, back and neck pain) are more common among office workers than carpal tunnel syndrome.
Staring at the Screen
While many forms of work can lead to eyestrain, most work-related eyestrain today relates to extended hours in front of a computer monitor called computer terminal-related eyestrain or video display terminal (VDT)-related eyestrain.
Our eyes are designed to constantly shift their focus between objects that are near and objects that are far away. Eyestrain can result when the eyes focus on a single, close up object for extended periods of time, exactly what working at a computer terminal usually requires.
Related symptoms include:
- Blurred vision
- Soreness or pain in the eyeballs
- Watering eyes
- Dry or scratchy eyes
- "Heavy" eyelids
- Neck or back pain
Eyeglasses May Help
How can eyestrain and its related symptoms be avoided? First, have a yearly eye exam to make sure there are no problems with your eyes. If you wear eyeglasses you might discuss with your optometrist or ophthalmologist whether contact lenses or "computer glasses" (specifically designed for working at a computer monitor) may be helpful for you.
If you wear bifocals, especially if you're over age 50, Dr. Paul Vinger, clinical professor of ophthalmology at Boston's New England Medical Center, suggests you consider getting "executive" bifocals. These are bifocals with the top half of the lens focused specifically for the distance you sit from your computer monitor, and the bottom half of the lens focused for reading materials.
General Tips for Preventing Eyestrain
There are a number of steps you can take to help avert or lessen eyestrain:
- Lighting—Make sure you have sufficient lighting at work. Avoid florescent lighting directly in your field of vision.
- Lubrication—Blink your eyes frequently to keep them lubricated or try eye drops. Dr. Vinger suggests a lubricating artificial tear product without preservatives.
- Take eye breaks—These include:
- "Micro" breaks—relax your eyes every 15-30 minutes by either closing your eyes or gazing across the room (or out a window) at an object at least 20 feet away.
- "Mini" breaks—once an hour, stop working and get up and stretch for three to five minutes.
- "Macro" breaks—every three or four hours, take a 15-20 minute break and walk around to get the blood flowing through your body.
- Sun protection—if you work outdoors, wear sunglasses that provide complete UV-ray protection.
- Rest—if the work you do involves driving a vehicle, pull over to rest your eyes at least once every two hours, more often if possible.
If you work in front of a computer screen or other VDT, take the following additional steps:
- Screen position—Position the computer screen 18-30 inches from your eyes, with the top of the computer screen at, or slightly below, eye level.
- Materials—Place materials you'll be looking at while you're working on the computer as close to the computer screen as possible. This minimizes head and eye movement and the need for your eyes to refocus.
- Keyboard position—Place the computer keyboard directly in front of (and below) the computer screen.
- Glare filter—Place a glare filter or antireflection screen (glass is better than mesh) over your computer screen.
Take the following steps to maximize the lighting conditions on and around your computer screen:
- Adjust the brightness and contrast levels on your computer monitor to make the picture clear and crisp and the focal points on the screen (text and/or diagrams) much darker than the background (black type or diagrams on a white background are best).
- If you experience a "flickering" sensation from your computer screen, try lowering the screen's brightness control. If that doesn't work, consider getting a screen with a higher "refresh" rate.
- Place blinds or drapes on windows and keep overhead lighting low to minimize glare and reflected light.
- Set up your workstation so that bright lights are not in your field of vision.
- Avoid reflective surrounding surfaces, such as your desktop and the surrounding walls.
- Keep the computer screen surface dust free.
- When reading text on your computer screen, keep the text size at least three times the size of the smallest text you can read.
If you end the day feeling bleary-eyed, try incorporating some of these tactics into your workday. You may be surprised what a difference such minor adjustments can make.
American Academy of Ophthalmology
National Eye Institute
Canadian Family Physician
Canadian Ophthalmological Society
Improving visual comfort at a computer workstation. CTD Resource Network, Inc. website. Available at: http://www.tifaq.org/articles/visual_comfort-jan99-jeffrey_anshel.html.
Last reviewed January 2008 by Alexander J. Anetakis, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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