With the increased use of tablets and computers, eye strain is a concern.
Digital devices have transformed our lives in ways that may have seemed impossible just a few short decades ago: using Skype to video-chat a loved one stationed on the other side of the globe; ordering dinner with a quick tap on an iPad; reading a book at the beach on a Kindle. Even swiping right in hopes of finding a soul mate on Tinder.
But with the advent of tablet and smartphone technology and the increasing daily reliance on it, new health issues are arising.
Optometrists and ophthalmologists say digital eye strain is a growing concern as more and more people start using digital devices at younger ages for longer periods of time.
About 70 percent of adults in the U.S. experience some form of digital eye strain, according to The Vision Council, an advocacy and education group that represents the manufacturers and suppliers of the optical industry. The most common type of eye strain from using computers and digital devices is called computer vision syndrome, according to Dr. Ryan P. Conley, ophthalmologist at Triad Eye Institute.
The syndrome is similar to other injuries caused by repetitive motions.
“The longer you continue the activity, the worse symptoms become,” Conley says. “The eyes are required to continually focus and align with what you are seeing on the computer screen.”
Constant computer and device use can cause blurred vision, double vision, headaches and neck pain, says Conley, adding that Triad Eye Institute sees several patients per week complaining of those issues.
Computer vision syndrome also can cause eye fatigue, says Dr. Savanah Sayler with Harrel Eyecare. Other symptoms are convergence insufficiency, or the eyes’ inability to accurately work together during near tasks, and accommodative dysfunction, or the eye muscles’ inability to efficiently focus during near tasks.
Dry eye, however, is the most pervasive symptom of computer vision syndrome, Sayler says, because people blink 67 percent less when they are focusing and concentrating.
“Also, the blinks during near tasks tend to be incomplete blinks that do not completely spread the tear film or release the oil component of tears necessary for ocular hydration,” she says.
How does digital eye strain affect the eyes?
It’s no secret to anyone who has worked for hours on a laptop or binge-watched a TV series on an iPad that digital eye strain from devices is a real issue. But what exactly is happening to our eyes when we use digital devices for long periods of time?
“Computer vision syndrome occurs because our eyes and brain react differently to characters on a computer screen than they do to printed characters,” Conley says. “It is easier for our eyes to focus on printed material that has black characters with defined edges but characters on a computer screen do not have the same degree of contrast and definition.”
Because of increased glare and decreased contrast, all digital devices, including computers, tablets and cellphones, put excess strain on the visual system compared to printed reading material, Sayler says. Also, the closer the devices are held to the eyes, the more strain the eye muscles feel.
Research also has found an association between increased use of digital devices and myopia progression, or near-sightedness, due to the strain it places on the eyes, according to Sayler. That’s in addition to increased dry-eye complaints, especially during the workweek.
“When we blink our eyes, we release fresh tears and oil that form a very important part of the tear film that comes from our oil glands — meibomian glands — near the eyelashes,” she says. “The less often we blink our eyes, the less oil is released from the glands and over time the oil in the glands starts to harden. When it hardens, it keeps new oil that is being made from releasing and the glands sometimes stop functioning long term.”
Additionally, research shows that LEDs emit blue light, which can affect cataract formation and increase the risk of macular degeneration. The condition leads to the loss of vision due to the degeneration of the macula part of the retina, says Dr. Robert H. Zoellner with Zoellner and Associates.
Sayler notes that the number of patients complaining of dry eyes and digital eye strain is increasing each year. An estimated 10 percent of her patients complain of eyestrain and muscle fatigue due to near-vision tasks, while she estimates 30 percent of patients report having dry eyes.
Who is affected?
Computer vision syndrome can affect a wide array of individuals: cubicle-bound corporate employees, stay-at-home mothers using a laptop to start a small business, and adventure-seeking travelers relying on their Kindle to stay entertained for long-haul journeys.
Because of aging, one’s ability to focus near and far begins to diminish by the age of 40 and it becomes more difficult to work on a computer, Conley says, because the eyes’ focusing system weakens, making the eyes less flexible.
Equally important, children and young adults are increasingly experiencing digital eye strain due to repeated use of portable video game consoles and reliance on tablets and computers for school work and everyday communication.
Many children have fragile visual systems that have yet to fully mature, leaving them vulnerable to complications from sustained near tasks, Sayler says.
In fact, children are especially vulnerable to the symptoms because they may often be victims of poor lighting and poor ergonomics as well, Conley says.
Sayler recommends that parents restrict the amount of time children can use digital devices, especially if it is not for educational purposes.
What can be done?
If you find yourself with any of the symptoms related to computer vision syndrome, book an appointment with a medical professional, Sayler says.
“You may have an uncorrected prescription or undiagnosed condition that is putting strain on your ocular system,” she says. “Be sure to tell your doctor the types of digital devices you most commonly use in order to get the most adequate testing and prescription for your specific eye care needs.”
Zoellner also recommends visiting an optometrist, because, he says, even small amounts of uncorrected prescription can cause eye strain with prolonged use of electronics.
“A good prescription is the first place to start,” he says. “Some patients may require a prescription for electronic devices other than their everyday glasses and contacts.”
Following a rule known as “20” may also help relieve the symptoms. The rule simply recommends that for every 20 minutes that one uses a digital device, look away for 20 seconds at 20 feet. This, Sayler says, allows the eye muscles to relax. When eyes are focused on things up close, the eye muscles are contracted and often need a break.
Additionally, she says it’s important to remember to blink eyes completely when conducting work on devices close up and to take frequent breaks to use artificial tear drops.
Placing the computer or device in the optimal location also is important. Zoellner recommends a desktop monitor be placed about
20-28 inches away from the eyes and face.
“Reading materials should ideally be on the desk or in a document holder at the same distance,” he says. “If you wear bifocal or progressive lenses, the computer should sit as low as is possible for your workstation. Use anti-glare screens or position the monitor to avoid glare from windows or overhead lighting.”
Handheld devices, meanwhile, should be held no closer than 14 inches from the face, Zoellner says, and it’s paramount to make sure the head and chin aren’t dropping to the chest while using the devices.
Dr. Julie Holmes with Downtown Tulsa Eyecare recommends anti-glare lenses for people who work at a computer for more than four hours per day.
“I have several patients that need only that — no prescription — just the anti-glare,” she says. Privacy screens also cut the glare and are helpful, she adds.
Most of the effects caused by digital eye strain are short term, Zoellner says, but significant strain can continue to affect a person long after they stop using electronic devices. That’s why it’s important for people to take notice of the symptoms early, and to make adjustments.