By Sandra Gordon
After spending time texting or using your computer or tablet, does your vision get blurry?
That’s a sign that you may have been working your eyes a little too much. Digital eyestrain (aka computer vision syndrome) can cause headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and neck and shoulder pain.
The good news is that you can take steps to make life easier on your eyes and keep your vision clear.
The Long View
Digital eyestrain is rooted in evolution. “Our eyes are designed for long-distance viewing so we can see the predator that’s coming,” says Andrea Thau, OD, board trustee of the American Optometric Association.
When you’re staring at a screen for long periods of time, you’re focusing closely. It’s the opposite of what your brain is programmed to do in stressful situations—hone in on distant objects. The imbalance contributes to digital eyestrain, Thau says.
The nature of screen time itself compounds the problem. “It’s easier for our eyes to zoom in on three-dimensional objects, such as the printed page, because the words and letters are more precisely defined,” Thau says. To decipher pixilated words, your eyes must work harder to focus.
What’s more, “when we text, we tend to bring the device in close,” Thau adds. “The closer the device, the more your eyes have to cross to focus.”
Preserving Your Vision
Digital eyestrain can be uncomfortable and make you less effective at work. It can also lead to permanent changes in your eyesight.
“If you have good vision your whole life and it starts to get blurry in your 20s, your eyes are adapting to the visual stress,” Thau says. “Your body is building in a pair of reading glasses at the expense of your distance vision.”
Fortunately, computer-related vision problems tend to be temporary—if you take action now. Here are some eye-relieving ideas.
See the Eye Doctor
If you have symptoms of digital eyestrain, make an appointment with either an optometrist (an eye care practitioner) or an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specializes in eye conditions). “You want to make sure you don’t have allergies, an infection or something more chronic,” says Kelly Nichols, OD, dean of the school of optometry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (You may also want to check in with your regular practitioner; dry eyes and blurry vision could indicate an underlying condition such as a thyroid problem or Sjögren’s disease, an autoimmune disorder.)
Tell the practitioner about the electronic devices you use and how you use them. If you already use vision correction, the practitioner can check your eyeglass or contact lens prescription to make sure it’s appropriate for computer work.
While you’re there, ask about getting fitted for special computer glasses with a coating that filters blue and violet light. Digital screens emit blue light, a high-energy, short-wavelength light that can contribute to eyestrain and other problems.
Your practitioner may recommend vision therapy, a series of coordinated exercises done in the office and at home to train your brain and eyes to work together better as a team. “Vision therapy can make an enormous difference in your performance and production at work,” Thau says.
Don’t Forget to Blink
It’s normal to blink 10 to 30 times per minute. But when using a computer or tablet, you’ll typically blink 25% less, which can dry out your eyes. “Blinking is like a windshield wiper for your eyes,” Thau says.
Every time you blink, your eyes are coated with a cleansing film. To keep your eyes moist, “try to blink more often,” Thau suggests, such as every time you use your computer mouse.
Give Your Eyes a Break
To counteract close computer work, force your eyes to relax by following the American Optometric Association’s 20-20-20 rule: Take a 20-second screen break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.
Every hour or so, get up and stretch your legs, too. “It’s important to take rest breaks,” Thau says. Set reminders on your phone to get up from your desk and look away.
Set Up Your Computer Correctly
How and where you do your work can help prevent eyestrain. Be sure to position your computer properly: If you’re using a desktop monitor, it should be 20 to 28 inches away at 15 to 20 degrees below eye level, so that you’re slightly looking down when you’re working. Control glare from any overhead lighting with a screen glare filter.
Also, make sure you’re not sitting right beneath an overhead vent. “Be aware of your environment. Blowing air from a fan or vent can cause your eyes to become dry and irritated,” Nichols says.
Don’t Do Eyedrops
If you’re tempted to use commercial eye drops because your eyes are irritated after working at your computer, think again.
“Some over-the-counter eye drops have strong preservatives that can make your eyes appear brighter by constricting blood vessels,” Thau says. The downside? When the drops wear off, there’s a rebound effect and your eyes can become redder than ever. (Your optical practitioner will recommend eye drops if you need them for a specific reason.)
Make a Soothing Compress
Herbs such as chamomile, eyebright and fennel can be made into teas by pouring one cup of freshly boiled water over one teaspoon of herb and steeping for 10 to 15 minutes. You then apply the tea to closed eyes with cotton pads or a clean cotton cloth for 10 to 15 minutes. Use chamomile tea that has been chilled (avoid it altogether if you’re allergic to ragweed) or the other two as warm compresses.
Brighten Things with Bilberry
This European blueberry relative is used to help support eye health.* Take in supplement form as directed on the package.
“The problem with close work is that our eye muscles basically get into a state of contraction,” explains Afua Bromley, LAc, of Acupuncture Saint Louis & Wellness Center. “We’ll do points that increase blood flow to the eyes and to the muscles that help control our vision.”
Bromley says acupuncturists will also do Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnostic tests such as tongue and pulse checks; otherwise, “you may be putting a Band-Aid on a deeper issue.”