Practical Tips to Beat Digital Eye Strain
Can’t spend a second away from your computer, tablet or mobile? Have watery, itchy eyes? It sounds like you need a few practical tips to beat digital eyestrain. Here’s the deal.
Whether we call it ‘computer vision syndrome’ or ‘digital eyestrain’, it’s absolutely clear for everyone it’s referring to a group of eye and vision-related issues that occur as a result of prolonged use of computer, tablet, e-reader and/or cell phone devices. Many people experience vision problems along with eye discomfort when using digital screens for extended periods. The severity of the symptoms seems to increase with the amount of screen use.
Did you know that the average American worker spends around seven hours in front of the computer daily, either in the office or working from home? Aiming to educate both employers and employees about digital eye strain and raise awareness about the potential complications it may lead to if ignored, the American Optometric Association declared March the Save Your Vision Month. Numerous experts recommend applying the 20-20-20 rule to help minimize the effects of eye discomfort. This involves taking a 20-second break to gaze at something 20 feet away from where you are every 20 minutes.
Digital Eye Strain Symptoms
The most common symptoms associated with digital eyestrain include:
Neck and shoulder pain
The major culprits for eye discomfort range from poor lighting, screen glare, improper viewing distance, improper sitting posture, untreated vision problems, to a combination of all these factors.
The degree to which people experience any form of eye discomfort is linked to the amount of time they spend looking at a digital screen, but first and foremost to their visual abilities. Uncorrected problems like farsightedness, astigmatism, inadequate eye focusing or eye coordination, as well as any age-related eye changes, such as presbyopia, account for an increase in severity of the visual symptoms when using a digital screen or computer device.
The majority of the symptoms experienced by computer users are temporary, and tend to become less severe once computer work or use of any other digital device stops. However, symptoms may persist in some cases even after computer use, especially in individuals with reduced vision like blurred distance vision. If the problem is not addressed, the symptoms will continue to recur and even worsen with future use of digital devices.
How to Prevent Digital Eye Strain
If eyestrain is not uncommon with you, a way to prevent and/or reduce eye discomfort would be to reduce glare and control lighting. Other approaches to the problem include monitoring posture while working at a computer, establishing a proper working distance between you and the screen, and last but not least, make sure that even minor vision problems are corrected.
Other causes of computer vision syndrome or eye strain include reading without taking a break to rest your eyes, driving long distances and performing other activities that involve prolonged eye focus, exposure to excessively bright light or glare, straining to see in very dim light, suffering from an underlying vision problem (i.e.: dry eyes, uncorrected vision), being under psychological pressure, fatigue, prolonged exposure to dry moving air from a fan, heating or air-conditioning system.
How Digital Eye Strain Occurs
Using a digital screen to read or write something puts more pressure on the eyes than non-digital reading or writing. The letter and number characters on a digital screen are not as precise or sharply defined as they are on paper, not to mention that the contrast level between the background and the letter or number characters is significantly reduced, and glare sometimes combined with reflections on the screen can challenge your eyes more.
Angles and viewing distances also for this kind of work differ from those used in hard copy reading or writing tasks. Consequently, the eye focusing and movement requirements for digital screen viewing can place more pressure on your visual system.
Additionally, if you have even minor vision issues, these are extremely likely to affect your performance and comfort while working at a computer or using a digital device. Uncorrected or mistreated vision impairments can contribute greatly to computer-related eye problems including eyestrain.
Even those of us who wear glasses or contact lenses may find those vision enhancers far from ideal for the specific viewing distances of their computer screens. That is why, some tend to tilt their heads at an odd angle because their glasses have not been designed for computer use, or bend forward toward the screen to see clearly. Such postures often lead to muscle spasms and pain in the neck, back or shoulders. Does this sound familiar? If yes, do the 20-20-20 exercise!
Especially if you’re using a computer or digital device every day for more than four hours continuously, you’re at greater risk of developing digital eyestrain or computer vision syndrome.
How It Is Diagnosed
Generally, computer vision syndrome is diagnosed through a minute eye examination (this is also the first step towards preventing or treating it). Testing with a main focus on visual requirements of working at the computer or digital device and optimal working distance may include:
Medical history to determine any symptoms the patient may experience as well as any underlying general health problems, medications taken or any environmental factors that can make the eyestrain symptoms more severe.
Acuity measurements to assess the degree to which vision may be impaired.
A refraction to establish the appropriate lens power required to compensate for any refractive errors, such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism.
Eye focus test to assess the eyes focusing ability and the way they work and move together. To build one single comprehensive and clear image of what is viewed, the eyes must change focus effectively, move and work synchronously. This test aims to identify problems that interfere with your eyes’ ability to focus properly or that encumber use of both eyes together. It can be done without using eye drops to determine how your eyes respond under normal conditions. In certain cases where one of the eyes’ focusing power may be partially hidden, eye drops are used. Drops temporarily prevent the eyes from changing focus during the testing.
Relying on the results obtained from these tests along with those of other tests, your optometrist can determine whether or not you have computer vision syndrome and recommend the right treatment.
Tips to Beat Digital Eye Strain
Solutions to treat or prevent digital eyestrain are numerous. In the majority of cases symptoms can be alleviated by proper eye care and making a few adjustments to your working environment to cater to your ‘eyegonomics.’
While working at a computer, eye specialists recommend the following tips:
Dim light overhead, your desktop or laptop screen should be the brightest light source in the room;
Wear glasses with special computer glare protection;
Make sure your spine is perfectly supported in upright position (ideally use a chair with lumbar support);
The top of your monitor should be set at eye level or slightly below;
Ideally your flat screen should be positioned directly in front, not tilted;
Sit at an arm-length away from the screen;
Your viewing angle should not exceed 35 degrees from the screen;
The keyboard should be set in a position that allows your upper arms to hang vertically.
Care For Your Eyes
Even for those of who do not wear glasses for medical reasons, specialists recommend using special ‘computer-friendly’ spectacles only when using a digital device. Additionally, people who do wear glasses to correct a vision problem may require a different prescription for computer use.
If you prefer or are prescribed contact lenses to remedy a vision problem, you may require a different lens design when viewing a digital screen. Contact lenses designed for computer use have a different lens power, tint and/or coating from regular ones, which may enhance comfort and visual ability during computer use.
Sometimes computer users may experience eye focusing or eye coordination-related problems, which cannot be corrected by glasses or contact lenses. In this case, vision therapy or training may be required. Vision training is a program consisting of a structured set of activities aimed at improving visual abilities. What it does is train the eyes and the brain to work more effectively together. This kind of exercises also helps adjust deficiencies in eye movement, eye focusing and eye coordination as well as enhance eye-brain communication. Treatment is usually developed around office-based and home training techniques.
Excessively bright light either coming from outside through a window or produced by a fluorescent indoor source, may cause eyestrain. To prevent it, avoid sitting next to a direct light source or pull the blinds half down and turn off any overhead fluorescent spotlights. Instead you can use floor lamps, which provide indirect lighting. Halogen devices are also recommended.
Use an Anti-Glare Screen
If you cannot avoid the glare produced by light sources, use an anti-glare screen or a screen glare filter to reduce the amount of light reflected from the screen.
Give Your Eyes a Break
Take breaks to rest your eyes. Experts say that taking 15 minutes every two hours of uninterrupted work on a computer is beneficial to your eyes. Every 20 minutes of uninterrupted computer work, gaze into the distance for 20 seconds. This will allow your eyes to refocus.
Eye specialists say that blinking helps reduce the chances of developing dry eyes because it keeps the front surface of the eye moist. So, the more often you blink, the better you’ll feel!
Use an LCD Display
For those of you who are ‘old school’ and are still using a tube-style monitor or cathode ray tube (CRT) as it is known in the technical realm, perhaps if you knew that flat-panel liquid crystal display screens or LCDs (like those of laptops) are less challenging for the eyes it would encourage you to replace it with an LCD one. This unique feature of LCD screens is given by their anti-reflective surface, which CRT monitors lack. The reflective surface of CRTs causes images to ‘flicker’ and glare, both of which are major causes for eyestrain. Although it may be imperceptible, this slight flicker can still lead to eye strain and fatigue during computer work.
Additionally, did you know that the risk of developing flicker-associated complications is higher if the refresh rate of the screen is below 75 Hz? If you have to use a CRT screen at work though, make sure the display settings are adjusted to the highest possible rate.
When choosing a flat panel display, select a device with the highest possible resolution. Resolution is linked to the so-called ‘dot pitch’ of the display. In general, screens with a lower dot pitch have sharper images. Look for a screen that has a dot pitch of 28mm or lower.
With LCDs you can forget about flicker, as the pixel brightness on the display is controlled by a ‘backlight’, which operates at 200 Hz by default.
If the refresh rate noted on the LCD screen is 60Hz, you don’t need to be alarmed, this figure indicates the frequency with which a new image is received from the video card, not how often the pixel brightness is being updated. What is of note is that this function is not in the least associated with eyestrain.
Ultimately, if you need to replace your screen, look for a relatively large device. For example, if you have a desktop, choose a display with a diagonal screen size of minimum 19 inches.
Adjust Display Settings
If you adjust the display settings of your computer, you’ll be less prone to eye strain and fatigue. This is the gist:
Brightness: Adjust the brightness of your screen so it’s more or less the same as the brightness of your workstation. You can check it by looking at the white background of a web page. If it looks like a light source, it’s too bright and you’ll need to dim it down. If it looks too dark or grey-ish, you will need to increase the brightness level.
Font size and contrast: Increase or decrease the font size and contrast as you feel comfortable. This is particularly important when you’re reading or composing long documents. Ideally, use black print on a white background.
Color temperature: Describes the spectrum of visible light emitted by a color display screen. Blue light is short-wavelength visible light which generally accounts for digital eye strain more than longer-wavelength hues like red or orange. By reducing the color temperature of your screen, you reduce the amount of emitted blue light for better long-term comfort.
If you’re using Microsoft Windows, go to Control Panel to adjust your display settings. If you’re using an Apple device, display settings may be adjusted by accessing Systems Preferences – Applications – Finder.
In some cases, on a desktop device color temperature is adjusted on the screen itself.
Feeling Stiff? Take a Break
Taking frequent breaks does not only help your eyes rest and refocus, but it also helps reduce your back, shoulder and neck pain usually associated with eye strain.
Many office workers take only two short 15-minute breaks, maximum throughout the whole work day. A recent NIOSH study shows that discomfort and eyestrain tend to become less severe if computer workers take about four additional five-minute mini-breaks throughout the work day.
Furthermore, these breaks did not impact work productivity in any way, experts suggest. On the contrary, data entry speed was significantly improved as a result and overall work output was maintained despite the workers having a good extra 20 minutes’ break time every day.
Another effective way to combat eyestrain and any associated discomfort is to move around as much as possible during breaks – stand up, take the long route to the photocopier, stretch your arms, legs, back and shoulders to reduce tension and fatigue.
Asking your fitness instructor to develop a quick and easy set of exercises you could do at the office to rest your shoulders, neck and back is also a good idea.
Adjust Your Workstation
If you need to constantly change focus between a printed page and your computer screen, this can lead to eyestrain. To reduce your eye discomfort, put a copy stand next to your monitor.
Use a desk lamp to light the copy stand properly. Position the lamp in such a way that it does not shine into your eyes or onto your screen.
Improper posture while working at the computer also causes computer vision syndrome. Adjust your chair and workstation to proper height. Ideally use ergonomic furniture to allow you to place your computer screen between 20 and 24 inches from your eyes or an arm length away. The center of your screen should be positioned 10-15 degrees below your eyes for a comfortable position of your head and neck.
Facts and Figures
Over 87 percent of the American working population report using digital devices for more than 2 hours daily and 52.2 percent say they use two digital devices simultaneously.
This does not come without consequences, as most of these people experience different symptoms of computer visions syndrome. The Vision Council has again come up with indicative statistics according to which:
31 percent experience eye strain;
22 percent experience dry eyes;
22.6 percent experience headache;
22.1 percent experience blurred vision;
30.1 percent experience neck and shoulder pain.