When Eileen Rohan was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., her grandmother would take her to an elevated subway platform and have her focus her eyes westward, on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. This was a citified version of what her grandmother's father, a sheep farmer in Ireland, did to help strengthen her vision. “He would take all the young children to the top of the hill and have them gaze upon a distant farmhouse, rock or vista,” says Rohan, a 52-year-old litigation attorney in upstate New York.
It has been decades since Rohan gazed out at Lady Liberty. These days she’s more likely to be stuck in an office staring at a computer screen, which is exactly what led to the situation she found herself in recently, just two weeks into a new job. “I had overwhelming fatigue in my eyes, and my eyes felt sore,” she says. “I was getting headaches, and my vision just completely blurred.” Not only is her small monitor hard to view, but also her office is lighted by two sets of fluorescent lights, one of which is directly above her desk. This causes a condition known as “discomfort glare,” which happens when bright peripheral light from overhead fluorescents or windows makes it hard to view the computer screen.
Even health-conscious people are susceptible to computer vision problems. Judith Mizrahi, a 51-year-old holistic health and nutrition coach in Westchester, N.Y., has similar eye problems stemming from computer use, even with breaks every hour and a half. “My eyes get blurry,” she says. “I get double vision, eye headaches, and my eyes feel tired and heavy. At night it can be really hard for me to see. By the end of the day, I don’t even have the energy to read a book. I used to read a novel a week. I can’t tell you what a loss that is. It makes me want to drop off the grid.”
Talk to 100 typical computer users, and depending on who’s counting, up to 70 of them are likely to report vision-related complaints. A 2008 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior posited that if 68 percent of all Americans are using computers, then the most conservative estimate of the number of people suffering from computer vision strain is 47 million.
So is the computer at fault, are some people just more susceptible, do people’s eyes change over the years — or is the problem some combination of all three? And then the real question: Whatever is causing this spate of vision problems, is there a remedy for it?
Computer Vision Syndrome: A Modern Epidemic
James Sheedy, an optometrist known as “Dr. Ergo” (as in ergonomics) and director of optometric research at the Vision Performance Institute at Pacific University Oregon, put computer vision syndrome on the map two decades ago when he began to publish scores of studies on computers and vision. Symptoms include eyestrain and fatigue, double or blurred vision, dry or irritated eyes, and aches in the head, neck and/or back (from improper head positioning), he concluded. What distinguishes this from more generic eye complaints is that when the sufferer stops using a computer, the symptoms tend to disappear or greatly subside.
This is what’s so frustrating — and potentially dangerous — about computer vision syndrome: Just try to tell people to stop using their computers or hand-held devices. And yet because by definition the syndrome is caused by computers, there’s no other good way to make the symptoms go away. But there are ways to reduce the risk of discomfort.
Another factor that makes treating the syndrome difficult is that there are certain natural changes in the eyes between ages 45 and 60, including increased presbyopia (diminished ability to focus on near objects), dry eyes, increased susceptibility to discomfort glare (workers over 50 need about twice as much light as younger adults to work comfortably), all of which can add up to a distressing degree of eye discomfort. Some years back, Sheedy wrote an article calling for eye doctors to become better at diagnosing and treating computer vision syndrome. As a result, many optometrists have learned to check near and binocular (eye-focusing) vision, two functions you need for computer work. Bottom line: Your prescription should make viewing the computer comfortable.
According to the American Optometric Association, computer vision syndrome can be caused by a number of different factors: computer screen glare, improper positioning of the monitor, more than three hours a day of computer time, and the wrong prescription for corrective lenses. And many computer users unconsciously adapt to the problems by squinting, craning their necks forward and/or tilting their heads back to view the screen, all of which can lead to and exacerbate vision problems.
Fear of Glasses
“I’m not dealing with the whole aging process very well,” confessed a 49-year-old woman who spoke on the condition that her name be withheld. Like many of her peers, she is resisting wearing reading glasses. Some people feel a kind of “stigma” about needing to wear reading glasses after going half a lifetime not needing them. Others fear that depending on glasses will worsen their vision, But, Sheedy says, wearing glasses will not accelerate the loss of your ability to focus. “It happens whether you wear glasses or not,” he says.
On the other hand, not wearing glasses when you should be can aggravate your discomfort by causing unnecessary strain. Perhaps as a testament to our increasing dependence on technology, glasses have become both more popular and more chic over the past decade or so, and old stigmas have long since faded into stylistic history.
“I wore glasses at age 7, and I was mocked mercilessly,” Eileen Rohan recalls. “Now I teach third-grade Sunday school and half the kids wear glasses, but there’s no stigma.” Plenty of people in all age brackets who could wear contact lenses opt for glasses as a fashion statement. And while computer use does not generally lead to long-term damage, Sheedy says, studies show that younger people may develop late-onset myopia (nearsightedness) from extended close work, including computer use.
Take a Break Already
Before accepting her new job, Rohan worked from home, where she could work on her laptop in a comfy chair or take frequent breaks to make tea or take the dogs for a walk. Not surprisingly, eyestrain wasn’t an issue then. Why doesn’t she take similar breaks now? “Deadlines!” she says. “My caseload is heavy, and I’ve got to file responses to motions on tight deadlines.”
Everyone has an excuse for not taking breaks. Usually it’s because they are so absorbed in their work that they lose track of time or feel they’re more productive motoring through. “I know I should be taking more regular breaks,” the 49-year-old woman said, “but when I’m immersed in something, I can look up and all of a sudden two or three hours have gone by.”
Yet skipping breaks because you want to achieve high productivity is, shall we say, a bit short-sighted. By not allowing recovery time from the micro-damage to the soft tissue from repetitive work and lack of full-body movement, you risk a host of musculoskeletal disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries. Counterintuitive as it might sound, studies show that people who take regular breaks are actually more productive than those who don’t. People who take breaks are less fatigued and make fewer errors. Taking the afternoon off because of a raging headache won’t win you productivity awards.
The good news for people with computer vision syndrome is that you have a lot of control over your own recovery. Rohan has decided to get an eye exam, turn off her office fluorescent lights and bring in floor lamps and, whenever possible, read in a conference room that has better lighting. There are plenty of ways to be productive the good old-fashioned way, and once you recondition yourself to doing them — and reduce your eyestrain — you’re not likely to revert to bad habits. The checklist below can help get you get started. But please print it out and go read it in your most comfortable chair — under a good light, with glasses if you need them.
Checklist to Reduce Computer Eyestrain
- Upgrade to glare-free lighting. Overhead fluorescent lights should be indirect, or have louvers to diminish the brightness of the light source. Avoid a high contrast between your computer screen and room lighting by lowering bright light sources and adding blinds to windows or adjusting the brightness of the screen. Task lighting can help illuminate text if necessary.
- Place your monitor straight ahead, an arm’s length away when you are sitting in front of it, where you can view the middle of the screen without tilting your head up or down. Position the monitor perpendicular to windows, and keep your screen clean to reduce blurred vision.
- Use corrective lenses that allow clear viewing of the screen. That might mean a special pair of glasses that you use just for the computer. (Bifocals and progressive lenses might cause you to tilt your head back to see, which can lead to poor neck posture.)
- Take regular breaks. Follow the “the rule of 20s”: Every 20 minutes, stand up, walk to a window if you have one, and look 20 feet away from your screen for at least 20 seconds. Breaks can be productive: They’re an ideal time to make phone calls, catch up on face-to-face meetings or review printed material.
- Blink! It moistens the eyes. In one study, Sheedy found that computer users’ blink rate dropped 50 percent when they were staring at a monitor (from 15 per minute to seven and a half) — a great way to cause dry eyes!
- Avoid squinting. This happens far more often than you may realize because you can’t see the screen clearly or because of glare. Either way, it leads to eyestrain.
- Try these three eye soothers. Rub your hands together briskly to create heat, then palm your eyes by placing the heel of your hands on your cheekbones and fingertips in your hairline. Without pressing on the eyeball, block out all light and allow the warmth to soothe the eyes. A good eye exercise — for everyone — is to imagine a large clock in front of you. Without moving your head or straining in any way, let your eyes trace a slow clockwise circle, then a counter-clockwise one. Close your eyes and rest them.
- Finally, make yourself a “comfort sandwich.” Warm an eye pillow in the microwave — just a little warmer than body temperature. Lie down and place a moistened thin, soft cloth over your eyes, followed by a folded tissue or paper towel, then the warm eye pillow. You might want to set a timer: This is so relaxing you might not want to get up.
Deborah Quilter, author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book, is an ergonomic expert who has lectured internationally about repetitive strain injury to business groups and conferences.