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Expert Perspectives

All About Computer Vision Syndrome and Digital Eye Strain

By Dr. Yaa Fordjour, Medcan optometrist

Causes, symptoms and tips to prevent discomfort.

It’s a question many optometrists are hearing with increasing regularity: What is eye strain? The world has changed the way it conducts business, school and socializing. Meetings, classes and personal communication have all shifted virtual, and as a result, our screen time has reached unprecedented levels. It’s no wonder that many of us are now thinking about the effect on our eyes.

Eye strain is the fatigue or discomfort associated with extended periods of “near work”—things like reading or answering emails at close range. It can also be experienced when looking intently into the distance for a long time (during a lengthy drive, for example). Another form includes computer vision syndrome, the result of extended periods of screen time, and includes symptoms like glare sensitivity, fatigue, non-specific eye aches, watery eyes and sometimes headaches (usually near the temples).

Whether you develop eye strain can depend on the amount of time you spend on a task; the proximity of your screen to your eyes; where your reading material is actually positioned; the contrast or illumination levels of your screen; and even the lighting in the room.

Luckily, it’s not too hard to alleviate the symptoms of eye strain. Following are a few tips to mitigate your risk of developing one of the most common eye-related maladies of the pandemic:

Practice the 20/20/20 rule. Just as you shouldn’t sit at your desk for more than an hour at a time, you shouldn’t stare at your screen for too long, either. Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look 20 feet away. Developing this habit will allow you to work longer without any eye strain-related discomfort.

Adjust your working distance. Stretch your arms toward your screen. Can you straighten them all the way? If not, you’re working too close to your monitor. Work an arm’s length away, and, if you have a prescription that doesn’t work at this distance, visit your optometrist for a new one. If possible, you should also position your screen about 20 degrees below eye level, which is a more natural resting position for your eyes.

Don’t work in the dark. You may like the bright glow of a screen in a dark room, but it’s hard on your eyes. Matching the brightness of your screen to the brightness of your surroundings creates an environment of optimal viewing comfort.

Reduce glare. Turn off your screen and angle it until it’s in a position where the reflections from windows and in-room lighting are at a minimum. You can also try a glare-reducing screen or, if you wear glasses, an anti-glare coating on the lens.

Combat dry eyes. Dryness can play a huge role in eye discomfort, especially while using a computer. Typically, we blink about once every six seconds, which helps keep our eyes moisturized and our vision clear. But when engaged in a visually-demanding, attention-grabbing task—like working on a computer—our blink rate goes down by about half, which causes dryness. Make sure you keep blinking at a normal rate—you don’t actually have to count, but when you take your 20 second break, practice a few nice, full blinks just to remind yourself what the action feels like. You can also use preservative-free artificial tears throughout the day to help keep your eyes lubricated. Please note that dry eye syndrome can be a complex condition, which is helped greatly by seeing an eye doctor.

Consider blue-light glasses. You may have heard that blue light filtering glasses reduce eye strain. Many people do report that they make it easier to look at screens, however this benefit is not reported by everyone and we do not currently have a clear reason as to why. You may have also heard that blue light is dangerous, but let me reassure you that it is not. There is no evidence that it can damage the retina, as it doesn’t share the same molecule-damaging properties of UV light, which can be harmful. That said, blue light does suppress the production of melatonin, keeping us awake and affecting our circadian rhythm. Prolonged exposure to it, say, by looking at your phone before bed, can make it more difficult to sleep. This is where blue-light filtering glasses may be helpful.

The good news is that eye strain won’t permanently damage your eyes. If you’ve followed the advice above and your symptoms continue, your problem may be something other than eye strain. Presbyopia, often noticed by people in their mid-40s, is a condition that leads to a decreased ability to focus clearly on something close up. It’s usually treated with reading glasses or progressives. Binocular vision disorders, which can prevent your eyes from working together efficiently, also may make it difficult for you to focus on a screen.

It’s important for adults to see an eye doctor at least every two years to ensure healthy vision. Medcan Optometry can help. Call 416.350.5900 to book an appointment.

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