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Ease Your Computer Eyestrain

woman covering her eyes to deal with eye strain
June 20, 2016 (Updated: August 4, 2021)
Lily Moran

We’ve all been told that it’s not polite to stare—but it’s not inherently unhealthy. Just rude.

However, the same is not true if you’re staring at a computer, cell phone, tablet, or e-reader.

The American Optometric Association tells us that the average American worker spends seven hours a day on the computer. I’ll bet the average American kid does about the same.

So it’s no surprise that the digital revolution has brought about its own special health problems—called computer vision syndrome (CVS).

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent or minimize it.

Symptoms of CVS

The most common symptoms are:

  • Eyestrain
  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry eyes
  • Neck and/or shoulder pain

Many of the visual symptoms will recede once you separate yourself from the screen. Others will hang on, and some can recur or worsen if you don’t address the cause.

What causes CVS?

A digital page on a screen is very different from a printed page.

The characters on screen often are not as sharply defined as on paper. There may be less contrast between the characters and the screen background. Glare from inside the device and reflections of light sources outside the device—lamps, overhead fixtures, natural light through the windows—all make your eyes work harder—and increase your risk of CVS.

There are also significant differences in how far or near you are to your screen versus a printed page, and in the angle at which you’re viewing your source. Your eyes face a unique and demanding set of focus and movement challenges.

A major cause of CVS is un- or under-corrected vision problems—even minor ones. If you use corrective lenses, make sure they’re up to date.

Most people add yet another challenge—poor posture. You’ve seen it and are likely guilty yourself. As you read this, are you leaning in toward the screen, back curved, shoulders hunched?

That’s why neck and shoulder pain are considered CVS symptoms.

CVS prevention and reduction starts with DIY

CVS symptoms can be caused by many non-CVS conditions. So a proper eye exam is, of course, necessary to determine whether you have it, and if so, its extent and what to do about it.

Prevention and reduction techniques range from DIY-simple to special eyeglass lenses.

A couple of hints on the simplest of these:

  1. More time in front of your screen has been linked to more CVS discomfort.
  2. Spending two or more nonstop hours onscreen puts you in the highest CVS risk group.

Get the hints?

OK, so your work requires a lot more than two hours onscreen.

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But I know how many of us are seduced by “recreational surfing.” The Internet makes it all too easy to wander from news to games to movie reviews to the movies themselves.

Knowing the CVS risks lurking in that surf … maybe you’ll cut back?

Another of the simplest solutions is the 20-20-20 rule.

Every 20 minutes you’re onscreen, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away. Keeps your eye muscles limber.

The next DIY technique is simple and immediately effective. It delivers a bonus host of full-body, good health benefits—and is distressingly easy to forget to do.

It’s about positioning and posture, assuming you’re at a desk, with a desktop computer, not a laptop.

Body position. Do what your folks told you: sit up straight, shoulders back. Hunching over and forward can lead to muscle pain and spasms.

Screen position. Most people prefer looking downward 4–5 inches from straight ahead, at the screen 20–28 inches from the eyes. Avoid any position where light comes in from behind the screen, from windows, for example. Use blinds or shades if necessary.

Reference materials. Position documents you need to see between keyboard and monitor, or in a document holder beside the monitor, so you don’t have to move your whole head to see them—just your eyes.

Lighting. Put the screen where there’s the least reflected glare from windows or overhead lighting. Use low-wattage bulbs in any desk lamps.

Anti-glare, anti-reflective screens. Use them if it helps.

Chair. It should be padded, comfortable, and the right height to let your feet rest flat on the floor. If it has adjustable arms, set them to provide arm support while you type. Don’t rest your wrists on the keyboard or desktop when typing.

Breaks. In addition to the 20-20-20 rule, rest your eyes for 15 minutes after two hours of continuous time onscreen.

Blink. To reduce your risk of dry eye, blink frequently to keep your eyes moist.

Special lenses. In some cases, people who don’t otherwise need eyeglasses are prescribed glasses specifically for computer use. These may have special lens designs, powers, tints, or coatings that can maximize visual abilities and comfort.

Vision therapy. There are special exercises that can improve eye-brain coordination and function, including some that will come to your home or workplace.

Keep an eye on your eyes’ comfort level, do your 20-20-20’s and 15-minute breaks, and check with your doctor if you see or sense any CVS symptoms.


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