Our screens entertain us, inform us and connect us to the world. But at what cost to our eyes? It’s no surprise that our eyes are straining harder than ever to process the daily deluge of digital content, from being glued to our computers at work, to scrolling our news feeds every chance we get, and then winding down with our favorite TV shows, video games, and e-books.
According to a Nielsen report, the average American now spends the majority of his or her waking hours (over 10 hours a day) engaging with digital content. Combine regular screen time with a pandemic that had us home all day and all night long, it’s no wonder that people are searching for relief for the bothersome effects of computer eye strain.
What are the symptoms of computer eye strain?
Computer eye strain, sometimes called computer vision syndrome or simply digital eye strain, describes the eye- and vision-related problems related to electronic screen use. These symptoms include:
- Dry eyes
- Eye irritation
- Eye strain headache
- Eye twitching or eyelid spasms
- Blurry or double vision
What are the causes of eye strain?
Many eye strain symptoms are caused by a combination of factors that basically force your eyes to work harder than they have to, says Craig See, MD, an ophthalmologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Cole Eye Institute. These causes include:
- Poor lighting or glare on the screen
- Uncorrected vision problems, like needing glasses
- Poor posture or position to the screen
- Other factors contributing to baseline eye dryness
With regard to eye dryness, for example, Dr. See says that many people already have some degree of dryness that is worsened by computer use.
“One reason is that you don’t blink as much when you’re focusing on a screen,” he says. Blinking is essential for cleansing and moistening your eyes. But while the average person blinks about 20 times a minute at rest, that rate plummets to only four to five times a minute while staring at a screen. Eye-strain-related dryness may also be causing eyelid twitching.
How long do eye strain symptoms last?
There’s no magic number, says Dr. See. The severity and duration of symptoms can vary from person to person. But generally speaking, if your symptoms—especially dryness—are caused by computer eye strain, they should resolve overnight. “When you get up in the morning, that’s when your eyes should be at their best,” says Dr. See.
How to treat eye strain
Reducing your screen time may be the best (and most obvious) way to reduce your digital eye strain. But when we fall short of this goal, here are some other ways to find eye strain relief.
1. Know when to use glasses versus contact lenses
One of the major causes of eye strain is not having the right prescription for your glasses or contact lenses or not having them at all when you should, says Dr. See.
“Especially if you’re having double vision or soreness when looking at a screen, get your eyes checked by your doctor,” he says.
You should also be mindful that your vision needs may change throughout the day. Many people who wear contact lenses, for example, experience some baseline dryness that is worsened by reading on a screen, says Dr. See. “If you wear contacts, I recommend wearing daily lenses and also having a good pair of glasses so that if your contacts start to bother you during the day, just throw them out and switch to glasses.”
Vision needs also change as we get older. Near-vision—or our ability to see things up close—declines with age. “Over the age of 40, we lose our ability to accommodate, which means changing the shape of the lens in our eyes to bring the focus in,” says Dr. See. “So another cause of strain may be needing reading glasses or glasses with a bifocal lens.”
2. Correct what you can in your viewing environment
Always cold in your office? You may not even realize that the air blowing in your workspace, whether it’s heat or air-conditioning, could be contributing to your eye dryness. If it’s possible, try to avoid or minimize how much air is blowing toward your eyes while looking at a screen.
But if you aren’t in control of your office’s thermostat, there are plenty of things you can control about the conditions of your screen use. “Basically, the easier you make it to read something on screen, the less tiring it’ll be for your eyes,” says Dr. See.
Minimize the amount of glare on your screen by reducing the sources of any stray light, such as a sunny window or harsh overhead lighting. You can also adjust the settings on your computer to make text larger and promote a higher contrast.
“It’s much easier for the eye to read things in black and white versus gray and yellow, for example,” says Dr. See.
And of course, do as your mama told you, and sit up straight. Good posture significantly helps reduce screen-related neck and back pain. “People who use their phones often tend to have very bad posture because they’re looking straight down and their neck is constantly bent,” Dr. See says.
But don’t look too far up, he warns. Ideally, when reading on a screen, it should be about 20 inches from your face and angled at or slightly below your eyes.
3. Give your eyes some TRC—tears, rest, compress
Although blinking is the best way to rehydrate your eyes naturally, it’s unrealistic to boost your blink rate while using a screen “because you’d constantly have to be thinking about it,” says Dr. See. Instead, try using artificial tears when dryness strikes. Artificial tears, which are available without a prescription, are eye drops that help add moisture on the surface of your eyes.
Although reducing your daily screen time may be unrealistic, it is important to take frequent breaks. A good rule of thumb is the 20-20-20 rule, as recommended by the American Optometric Association: Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen for 20 seconds at an object about 20 feet away.
To soothe eye soreness at the end of the day, warm compresses to relax the eye muscles may help. Before bed or as needed, apply either a microwave-safe hot/cold compress or a homemade compress using a towel and warm water to your eyelids. “As long are you’re not overheating it, it’s pretty safe to do and it helps a lot of people with dry eyes,” says Dr. See.
4. Don’t underestimate the power of healthy habits
A well-balanced diet, regular exercise and a nonsmoking lifestyle—these healthy habits go a long way to keep your eyes in tip-top shape.
Key nutrients, such as lutein, vitamins C and E, and zinc, are shown to boost overall eye health and lower your risk of some eye diseases. And don’t neglect your omega-3s. Many experts suggest that foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, nuts and seeds, can help support tear production and alleviate dry eyes. Plus, regular exercise and a diet low in added sugar and starches may help stave off diabetes, a leading cause of preventable blindness, says Dr. See.
Abstaining from smoking is another important way to protect your peepers. “Smoking speeds up cataracts, contributes to dry eye, and may lead to or worsen macular degeneration,” says Dr. See.
5. Blue light glasses may help, but not in the way you may think
Blue light glasses, or computer glasses, have become a popular product recently, with many claiming to relieve dry eyes and eye strain, and also prevent potential vision problems related to computer use.
But buyer beware of misleading marketing: According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, there is no evidence that the kind or amount of light coming from computer screens causes eye damage or eye disease, and the Academy does not recommend special eyewear (like blue light glasses) for computer use.
“The benefits of these glasses really have more to do with your sleep than with digital eye strain,” says Dr. See.
While blue light itself is not harmful to your eyes, research suggests that it is a powerful inhibitor of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep cycle. Essentially, blue light tricks your brain into staying active and awake longer. And since sleep is necessary for restoring your eyes so that they can perform at their best, it’s a good idea to limit your exposure to blue light at least an hour or so before bedtime.
So if you insist on scrolling through your social media before bed, that’s when blue light glasses may come in handy. You can also consider switching your devices to night mode (most devices have it now) and trying these other blue-light wind-down tips.
6. Check in with your eye doctor
If you continue to experience troublesome symptoms of digital eye strain that don’t seem to resolve overnight or when you take longer screen breaks, such as on weekends, talk to your eye doctor.
“If you’re having these problems with eye strain, it’s fine to start with artificial tears and hot compresses and make some simple adjustments, but if it persists then go see your eye doctor. It may be something as simple as updating your glasses or getting them if you need them. You might save yourself a lot of trouble.”
Wondering what to expect at your exam? Use these tips to prepare for your next eye doctor visit.