Imagine an average weekday - you wake up in the morning, and as you get ready for work, you use your smartphone to check the weather and for any important emails or calendar events for the day. During your morning commute on the train, you read your new novel or electronic journal on your tablet. Finally at work, eight or more hours of viewing a computer screen and reading text fill your day. On the way home, you pull out the smartphone again for some solitaire… then you get home and it’s time to relax with some facebook or netflix on the desktop.

In this age of computers, it’s easy to spend a majority of the day on an electronic screen, whether for work or for pleasure. And we’re suffering for it. Studies show that up to 90% of computer users suffer from symptoms of what is now called Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). Common symptoms include eye strain, headaches, blurred distance vision, blurred near vision, double vision, and dry or burning eyes.  Neck and shoulder pain are also considered part of CVS if they result from abnormal postures that are taken in the effort to provide more clear vision.

In most cases of CVS, a thorough eye exam by an eye care professional can reveal a treatable cause:

Even very small amounts of uncorrected or undercorrected prescriptions can cause CVS symptoms over the prolonged time spent viewing small print at a near distance, even if the vision is generally clear and comfortable. Having a recent and accurate eyeglass or contact lens prescription is essential for avoiding CVS.

Certain binocular vision problems, such as difficulty focusing and maintaining a close working distance or difficulty turning the eyes in together, can also lead to discomfort.  Prescription low powered reading glasses, progressive lenses, or eye exercises as part of a vision therapy program can be beneficial in these cases.

Many studies have shown the connection between electronic screen use and dry eyes. Computer users do not blink as often as they need to in order to maintain the tear film, and having a screen set at eye level or above leaves a larger surface area of the eye exposed to the air (compared to a normal reading position looking downward).  Any mild tendency toward dry eyes is made worse under these conditions, resulting in red eyes, burning, or a dry/gritty feeling. Contact lens wearers may experience worse symptoms. Certain brands of drug store artifical tears can help to relieve dryness, but frequently additional treatment is necessary. Your eye doctor can recommend appropriate drops or other treatments based on their exam findings.

Making some small changes in your visual habits and workplace environment can also help to relieve CVS symptoms:

If possible, sit at the computer so that the screen is about 15 degrees below your line of sight, tilted up towards you, at a distance of 20-28 inches.

An anti-reflective coating on your glasses eliminates  glare from surrounding light sources on your lenses and provides increased visual efficiency and comfort.  A filter placed over the computer screen itself reduces screen glare from overhead lighting or desk lamps.  Avoid facing directly towards or away from unshaded windows.

Keep the computer screen clean, and use a high contrast setting with a brightness that matches your surroundings for the best visual comfort.

Perhaps most importantly, practice visual hygiene with the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes of reading or computer work, give the eyes a 20 second break and look up at least 20 feet away. If the environment allows, take frequent longer breaks to stand up and stretch - 5 to 10 minutes break per hour is recommended.

Written by Dr. Sara Dawson for OPTYX