It has been more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic began, resulting in sweeping changes globally across all industries. More and more people are working from home, and the lines between work and home start to blur. Recent measures by our government to curb further infections of the Delta variant, mandatory mask-wearing and convenience of home deliveries have led to many of us choosing to spend time with our loved ones indoors, streaming films on Netflix on our computers and televisions in favour of leaving the house.
With the increasing amount of screen time people are facing, I’ve seen a rise in patients coming into my clinic suffering from symptoms of digital eye strain, ranging from blurry vision to headaches, eye fatigue, and many more.
What are the symptoms of digital eye strain?
You may have had the familiar feeling of discomfort you get after staring at a computer screen or mobile phone for an extended period of time without taking any conscious breaks. That strained, achy feeling that could start from the middle of our foreheads and spreads above the eyebrows to the temporal head. Or that gritty sensation in our eyes that goes away with blinking and lubricating. Or the transient blurry vision we get when we look up from our screens and it takes some time for our eyes to re-adjust and re-focus? These are some of the symptoms that users with digital eye strain often experience. Other symptoms that my patients often encounter are:
- Neck or back pain
- Blurred vision
- Dry, gritty eyes
- Difficulty focusing
- Tired eyes
- Brow ache
Why are my eyes blurry after looking at my phone?
When looking at our digital screens, our eye muscles have to contract to change the shape of our crystalline lens within the eye to bring the image into focus. The longer you spend looking at your screen, the longer the muscles have to remain contracted. Continuous contraction of the muscles over an extended period of time without rest will cause eye strain and fatigue.
At the same time, blinking is important to replenish our tear film which helps lubricate our eyes. When we look at screens, we tend to blink less without realizing it, which results in dry eyes. Increased dryness leads to discomfort, grittiness, and even blurry vision.
Other factors such as the nature of an individual’s work environment and reading habits can also contribute to digital eye strain. For example, poor posture can lead to neck ache or shoulder pains. Some of us may constantly switch between different viewing distances and angles, from reading documents on the desks to looking at your computer monitor. These repetitive variations in viewing distance may also place more stress on our eye muscles. Add these factors together and they give rise to the condition known as digital eye strain.
How do you treat digital eye strain?
An easy analogy would be to imagine yourself at the gym. When we hold up a weight, we often take breaks in between instead of continuously holding the weight up for the entire session. In doing so, we give ourselves time to rest and catch a breath. Similarly, our eye muscles need to relax after a period of time when looking at the computer, we should not neglect these hardworking and overworked muscles.
The general rule of thumb that you may have come across is the 20-20-20 rule; for every 20 minutes, take a 20 second break to look at an object 20 feet (6m) away. Now I know that may seem unrealistic to achieve in our daily lives, my suggestion to my patients instead is to take a small break after 30 minutes, simply look out the window or someplace a distance away in your office for about 20 seconds. Or better yet, take that time to stand up, grab a cup of coffee at the pantry or move about. Just do anything in which your eyes won’t have to focus on something up close.
Other tips I give to my patients are:
- Wearing the right glasses for the job can be a game changer for most of my patients. There are many types of lenses in the market today, having one that is suitable for your visual needs is extremely important. Besides ensuring your glasses prescriptions are up to date and accurate, as overcorrected glasses can cause your eyes to feel tired faster, there are specialized lens designs in the market that are suitable for use in the office. Office lenses provide wide intermediate and reading zones thus reducing blurry vision or difficulty focusing at different distances.
- We should also try to optimize our work stations by positioning our computer screen at an arm’s length away with a slight angle at 20 degrees below our eye level for better comfort.
- Having a humidifier next to your desk in an airconditioned room can help alleviate dryness.
- Having good surrounding lighting can help provide greater visual comfort and prevent eye strain.
- Anti-glare screens help to eliminate glare from harsh lighting or the digital screen itself which relieves discomfort. Also, do not position your computer screen in front of or behind any overhead lighting or windows.
- Consider increasing the font size and contrast on your digital devices to prevent squinting and eye strain.
- Lastly, don’t forget to blink more frequently and consciously when using your digital devices. Do not neglect getting sufficient rest and sleep to allow your eyes to rejuvenate.
By making some of these changes, you can alleviate the symptoms of digital eye strain yourself.
When should I see a doctor?
If you realize your symptoms are caused by prolonged use of your digital devices, consider making these small changes I mentioned and see if it helps. However, should these changes not improve your symptoms, you might want to consider a visit to your eye care practitioner or an eye specialist for a detailed examination as symptoms of digital eye strain may be a part of, or due to, a more serious eye condition.
Generally, if you are suffering from digital eye strain, I would first assess your eyes to check for the presence of dry eyes and manage it accordingly by first ensuring your prescription is accurate and up to date. In my clinic, we have a range of treatments for dry eyes, and depending on the severity, my recommendations would be tailored to you accordingly, but that is another complicated topic for another day.
- Alabdulkader, B. (2021). Effect of digital device use during COVID-19 on digital eye strain. Clinical and Experimental Optometry, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1080/08164622.2021.1878843
- Ganne, P., Najeeb, S., Chaitanya, G., Sharma, A., & Krishnappa, N. C. (2020). Digital Eye Strain Epidemic amid COVID-19 Pandemic – A Cross-sectional Survey. Ophthalmic Epidemiology, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/09286586.2020.1862243
- Rosenfield, M. (2011). Computer vision syndrome: a review of ocular causes and potential treatments. Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, 31(5), 502–515. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-1313.2011.00834.x
- Salinas-Toro, D., Cartes, C., Segovia, C., Alonso, M. J., Soberon, B., Sepulveda, M., Zapata, C., Yañez, P., Traipe, L., Goya, C., Flores, P., Lopez, D., & Lopez, R. (2021). High Frequency of Digital Eye Strain and Dry Eye Disease in Teleworkers during the Coronavirus Disease (2019) Pandemic. International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/10803548.2021.1936912