Eye dryness & Computer Eye strain: How to keep your eyes healthy if you use computers for extended periods

If you get tired, dry, or achy eyes after a long day of staring at the computer, you may be experiencing Computer Eye Strain. If computer eye strain is affecting your productivity and job satisfaction, read our guide to eye health for computer users where we look at what computer eye strain is, what some of the symptoms of computer eye strain are, what causes it, and how to adopt preventive measures against eye strain by optimizing your work environment and making sure that your eyes get enough rest.

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Stop computer eye strain if you user computers for extended periods

Do you often experience tired, dry, or achy eyes after a long day of staring at the computer? If you do, then there’s a good chance that you’re experiencing computer eye strain. Eye strain is one of the most common work-related complaints among heavy digital display users, affecting productivity and job satisfaction [1].

Here, we’ll take a look at what computer eye strain is, what some of the symptoms are, what causes it, and how to adopt preventive measures against eye strain by optimizing your work environment and making sure that your eyes get enough rest.

What is computer eye strain?

The medical term for eye strain is asthenopia or ocular fatigue, and it’s a common condition caused by intense use of the eyes [2]. When asthenopia is caused by staring at a computer screen for too long, it’s known as computer eye strain.

Computer eye strain is an increasingly common problem worldwide among people that spend a significant amount of time looking at screens regularly. It is also known as digital eye strain, or computer vision syndrome (CVS). There are various contributing factors for computer eye strain, like eye muscles fatigue, lights from the screens and the surroundings, and our eyes lacking the proper nutrients to be able to handle heavy workloads.

What is the relation between computer use and eye strain?

Prolonged screen time requires your eyes to focus and refocus continually, and move back and forth more than they naturally would. They also need to adapt quickly to the ever-changing images and colors on your screens. All of this extra work can lead to eye fatigue. On top of that, the text on your screens might be too small and the light reflecting from them can be stressful to your eyes.

Who is affected by computer eye strain?

Research indicates that around 70% of people that work primarily on computers have reported experiencing symptoms of computer eye strain [3]. 75% of respondents that use multiple devices at the same time experienced symptoms, as opposed to 53% of them that only use one at a time. And it isn’t just the adults that are suffering from this. An increasing number of kids are being affected by digital eye issues, especially if they are using computers or tablets at school.

Computer eye strain symptoms

Computer eye strain symptoms vary from person to person depending on overall eye health, and computer usage. You might experience one or multiple of the following symptoms [4].

  • Achy and sore eyes
  • Tired eyes
  • Burning or itchy eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Dry eyes
  • Blurred/double vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Soreness in your back, neck or shoulders [5]
  • Difficulty concentrating

The severity of the symptoms also varies from person to person. You might have occasionally tired eyes that feel better when you’ve given them enough rest. Or, the symptoms can be more severe, and they can last longer as well.

If you experience one or more of the symptoms mentioned above, you should first go and get checked by an optometrist to rule out any underlying eye health issues. Some serious medical conditions can cause blurred vision and dizziness, and you should consult your doctor immediately if you experience those symptoms.

Computer eye strain itself is not a dangerous condition. As long as you take steps to address the eye strain quickly, the symptoms should resolve themselves, and there won’t be any long term damage to your eyes.

Computer eye strain causes and risk factors

Excessive interaction with digital devices is one of the leading causes of eye strain in the world today. According to the American Optometric Association, people that regularly stare at screens for two continuous hours or longer have the most significant risk of developing computer-related eye strain [35].

If you’re like most people, you probably spend multiple hours each day staring at various screens. You might be looking at a computer screen for work all day. When you get home, it’s the smartphone, tablet, and TV screens all night. All of this interaction with your digital devices affect your eyes, and here are some ways that might cause eye strain.

Eye muscle fatigue

The eye muscle that helps you focus on a specific object is called the ciliary body, and the muscles responsible for movement and alignment are called the extraocular muscles. When the ciliary body contracts, the eye lens gets thicker, allowing it to focus with more power. The extraocular muscles help your eyes converge adequately, preventing you from seeing double.

When you’re working on your computer or using your smartphone, your eyes have to move back and forth constantly. They have to focus on images and texts that are relatively small, and often, do so from a close distance. Over an extended period, the ciliary body and the extraocular muscles have to work way harder than they are naturally designed to do. The extra workload puts a lot of stress on them, eventually resulting in fatigue and eye strain [6].

Not blinking enough

Studies have shown that when people concentrate on something, they tend to blink at a lower rate than usual [7]. Since computers and smartphones are likely to hold your attention for an extended period, you end up blinking a lot less during that time. When your eyes don’t blink at an average rate, your lubricating tear film does not get renewed, resulting in your eyes getting dry and feeling irritated.

Eye Dryness from not blinking enough using computers and smartphones

Harmful workplace lighting

Computer eye strain is not always caused directly by the computer. If there is a high level of contrast between the brightness of the screen and the surrounding light, it results in an unwanted glare that is strenuous to the eyes. For example, if there is a window allowing too much light to come through, or the brightness of the lights in the workplace doesn’t match that of the screen. In these conditions, the eyes have to keep adapting to the contrast in the brightnesses, and you can experience eye strain and headaches. External light reflecting from your screen can also result in a glare that is harmful to the eyes [8].

Who’s at a higher risk for computer eye strain?

There are a few factors that make it more likely for you to develop computer eye strain. The most obvious one is looking at screens for prolonged periods on a regular basis. Here are some other risk factors.

  • Uncorrected vision problems – If you’re far or near-sighted and don’t wear corrective lenses, you might try to compensate by squinting harder to focus correctly. The extra effort can eventually leave your eyes fatigued and irritated.
  • Improper posture – If your screen is too close to you, or it’s too high or low, you might have to compromise your posture and viewing angle to see your screen well. A wrong viewing angle can cause additional strain to the eyes, as well as back and neck pain.
  • Aging – As we age, we naturally produce fewer moistening tears. Reduced tear production, coupled with long periods of screentime, can cause dryness in the eyes. Screen users over the age of 50 are at a higher risk of experiencing dry eyes [9].

Can computer eye strain cause long term damage?

Assuming there aren’t any underlying eye health issues, there shouldn’t be any long term complications related to computer eye strain. However, in the short term, it can impact your quality of life, and affect your productivity at work. In some cases, people have reported experiencing secondary symptoms such as nausea, and twitching of the facial muscles [10].

Can conventional eye drops get rid of computer eye strain?

If your eyes feel dry or irritated, your first instinct might be to splash some cold water on them. That might provide you with some temporary relief, but it won’t solve the problem. This is because the dryness and fatigue result from an inadequate amount of tear production in your eyes. And your tears are more than just water. They have other lubricating and infection-fighting elements to keep your eyes moist and healthy.

The most effective conventional remedy for eye strain is the use of eye drops. Eye drops act as artificial tears, and they reduce the discomfort in your eyes. They increase moisture levels, reduce the stress from excessive focusing, improve sensitivity caused by brightness contrast, and improve the optical quality of the eye surface. In other words, they go a long way to enhance your comfort as you work, increasing your satisfaction and productivity [11]. Eye drops are available over-the-counter at most pharmacies.

What are some prevention steps and natural remedies for computer eye strain?

There are several relatively simple steps that you can take to prevent computer eye strain, or improve the symptoms if you already suffer from it. Prevention steps involve adjustments to your workspace and adopting certain lifestyle habits.

Blink frequently throughout the day

Blinking frequently throughout the workday will help replenish the tear coating in your eyes. It will prevent dryness and irritation, and allow your eyes to stay fresh for longer [11][12].

When you’re using a computer, there’s an elevated level of concentration that causes you to blink less in the first place. So, it might help to set a timer to remind yourself to blink periodically. Make sure to blink all the way, and close your eyes fully. Try doing 2 – 3 sets of 12 proper blinks every hour.

Use a warm compress on your eyes

There are hundreds of glands in your eyes called meibomian glands [13], and they secrete lipids that contribute to tear-production. Having dry eyes can cause them not to function normally. On top of that, a period of inadequate blinking can lead to the lipids clogging the glands, further hampering tear-production.

You can remedy this by applying a warm compress on your eyelids, and by gently pressing down with your fingers to unblock the glands. The heat and the pressure from the compress will clear up the glands and allow them to function better [14].

Follow the 20-20-20 rule

The 20-20-20 rule suggests that for every 20 minutes you spend staring at a screen, you should take 20 seconds to look at something that is 20 feet away. The goal is to give your eyes a periodic break and help them relax by looking at something farther away.

Set a timer to remind yourself when it’s time to take a break from the screen. Depending on your where your desk is, you’ll need to identify what objects are 20 feet away from you. If you’re close to a window, you can look at something outside, like a tree or a lamp. Otherwise, try to focus on something inside that is far enough.

There hasn’t been enough scientific research to test how well this rule works, but the 20-20-20 rule is recommended by the American Academy of Ophthalmology [15] to reduce eye strain. A study has, however, shown that focusing on distant objects periodically led to fewer symptoms of eye strain among university students [16]. And since one of the leading causes of eye strain is focusing on near objects, it just makes sense that the 20-20-20 rule would help.

Reduce the glare from your screen

If there is excessive contrast between the brightness of your screen and the light in your surrounding area, it results in what is known as glare. This glare is stressful to your eyes, and it can cause eye strain. Minimizing the glare will make it easier on your eyes, and improve the symptoms.

Use lighting in your workspace that matches well with your computer screen. Switch to full-spectrum bulbs, since they have warmer colors and reduce glare. Try to sit at a right angle to the window, and avoid placing your monitor too close to it. Wiping dust and fingerprints from your screen will make it easier to read. Adjust the brightness of the monitor to match the light that is directly behind it.

If you wear glasses, get lenses with anti-reflective (AR) coatings, which will reduce reflection off the lenses. As a last resort, you can put an anti-glare screen on your monitor.

Optimize your workspace

You can make some adjustments to your computer, and your overall workspace, to decrease the stress on your eyes during the workday.

  • Minimize screen flicker – Flickering from your monitor makes the screen appear like it’s rolling, which is hard on your eyes. Set your monitor’s refresh rate between 70 and 85 Hz to reduce flickering [17].
  • Get a larger monitor – If possible, switch to a larger monitor, since that will naturally make the words and images more manageable for your eyes to absorb.
  • Better ergonomics – Keep the viewing distance between your eyes and the screen in the range of 20 – 28 inches. The screen should be set just below eye level, but not low enough to the point where you have to hunch over.

Limit exposure to blue light at night

Human beings aren’t naturally designed to be exposed to light at night. When we are, our circadian rhythm is disrupted. The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock, and it relies on light exposure to regulate the release of certain hormones responsible for mood, energy, sleep, and other factors. Blue light plays a significant role in disrupting the circadian rhythm [36].

Blue light is a part of the visible light spectrum. It has a short wavelength and a high level of energy. We get blue light from the sunlight, but we also get it from our smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.

When you get blue light from the sun during the day, it keeps you energetic and alert. However, it’s problematic when you get it from your digital screens at night. It signals the brain to produce less of the chemical known as melatonin, which is responsible for helping you fall asleep (thus disrupting your sleep cycle, and your internal clock) [37]. On top of that, it makes you blink less, causing your eyes to get dry [18].

Ideally, you should not use your digital devices for a period before you go to bed. If that’s not an option, you can limit blue light by adjusting the settings on your phone or tablet. Most phone manufacturers nowadays have “night settings” that allow you to reduce the amount of blue light displayed on the screens. Alternatively, you could buy “blue blocking” glasses and wear them when you use your devices at night.

Perform eye exercises

Eye exercises can strengthen your eye muscles, and improve eye strain symptoms like dry eyes, blurred vision, and even headaches [19].

Here are a few simple exercises you can try next time you feel like your eyes are getting strained. For each of these exercises, take a few deep breaths before you do them to help your face, and eye muscles relax.

  • Roll your eyes – Without moving your head, look up to the ceiling. Slowly move your eyes in a clockwise direction. Try to make a big circle with your gaze, but be careful to not strain your eyes by pushing too hard. Repeat three times on each side, and then close your eyes and relax.
  • Palming – An old yoga technique where you rub your hands together till they are warm, and then place them on your closed eyes. The bottom of the palm should rest on your cheekbone, and the tip of your fingers should be on your forehead. Your palms should cover your eyes entirely, but leave enough space for them to blink. Do this a few time over a couple of minutes.
  • Zoom your eyes – Extend your arm and raise your thumb. Focus your eyes on the thumb, as you gradually move it closer to your face. Stop when your thumb is about 3 inches away from your face, and slowly move it back to the starting position. Do this for around two minutes to strengthen your eye muscles.

Eat foods that boost eye health

A diet rich in a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients will keep your eyes healthy. It will reduce your risk of developing dry eyes, age-related macular degeneration, and other conditions [20]. If your eyes are healthy and robust, they’ll be better able to handle the stress you put on them, and they’ll be less likely to get strained quickly.

Try to incorporate high-quality proteins, healthy fats, fruits, and plenty of vegetables in your diet. Here are four foods that are rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids, and they can give your eyes a boost.

  • Salmon – Salmon is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can be beneficial to the health of your retina [22]. Studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids might help maintain healthy blood vessels in your eyes, and prevent diseases like macular degeneration [23]. Omega-3 fatty acids can also alleviate symptoms of dry eyes. Wild caught salmon is a better source of omega-3s than the farm-raised kind. You can bake, grill or broil salmon, or eat it raw at a sushi restaurant.
  • Almonds – Each serving of almonds contain a significant portion of your daily vitamin E requirements. Vitamin E protects your eyes against harmful molecules that target healthy tissue. The human body doesn’t naturally create enough vitamin E on its own, and we need to get enough of it from external sources. There’s some evidence to suggest that vitamin E might help protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration and cataracts [24]. Besides almonds, other nuts and seeds like hazelnuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds are also rich in vitamin E.
  • Eggs – Eggs are a comprehensive source of antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients that might be beneficial for your eyes. Egg yolks contain vitamin A, the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, and zinc. You have zinc in your retina, and it aids vitamin A in producing a pigment called melanin, which is essential for your eyes to function properly. Zinc deficiency can hamper your ability to see well at night [25]. In general, eggs are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Whenever possible, choose pasture-raised eggs for the highest nutrient density. And contrary to some misconceptions, egg yolks do not negatively affect your blood cholesterol levels [26].
  • Kale – Kale and other dark green leafy vegetables are the primary sources of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. High levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in your blood can significantly lower your risk of developing eye diseases [27]. These antioxidants protect your retinas, and they filter out blue light to prevent damage. Other than kale, collard greens, spinach, and broccoli are also excellent sources of lutein and zeaxanthin.

If you want to go one step further, you can start cutting out trans fats and processed foods from your diet, since they might negatively affect your eyes, and overall health [28].

Supplementation with carotenoids to treat computer eye strain

Carotenoids are pigments that give plants and organisms their full range of colors. The plants use them during photosynthesis, to convert sunlight into chemical energy that is used to fuel their activities. When we consume carotenoids, we might be at a decreased risk of eye diseases [29].

Studies have shown that supplementing with the following carotenoids might be useful in enhancing your vision health and improving computer eye strain symptoms.

Astaxanthin supplementation

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid found abundantly in nature, especially in marine animals such as salmon, crabs, lobsters, shrimps, and crayfish. It’s responsible for the pinkish-red colors of their flesh [30][31]. Marine animals cannot synthesize astaxanthin on their own, and they must get it by feeding on microalgae that produce the carotenoids.

Although it’s a relatively newly discovered nutrient, astaxanthin is currently the third most popular carotenoid on the global market based on sales volume [32]. It is one of the most potent and safe natural substances, and it performs a fantastic array of beneficial biochemical functions in your eyes.

Its many benefits include reduced inflammation, UV protection, and oxidative damage prevention [33]. It might also prevent damage to the neurons within the retinal layers. Several studies have reported the positive effects of astaxanthin on the accommodative ability (ability to focus on objects at different distances) of the eyes [30].

Astaxanthin is unique compared to other carotenoids because it is lipid soluble, and it can easily cross the blood-retinal barrier. In a human clinical study, half the subjects were given 6 mg of astaxanthin per day, and the other half was given a placebo for four weeks. Compared to the placebo group, the group that received astaxanthin was found to have increased blood flow into the retinal capillaries. Consequently, they had reduced eye strain and fatigue from computer usage [31].

Astaxanthin supplements are mostly available over-the-counter.

Lutein and Zeaxanthin supplementation

Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids found in large quantities in green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, etc. Of all the carotenoids found in human blood and tissues, only lutein and zeaxanthin are present in the lens and retina, in rich concentrations [21]. Because of their specific location in the retina, they are often called macular xanthophylls, or macular pigments (MP).

Macular pigments play a vital role in protecting eye health and preventing retinal diseases. Blue light from your digital screens can cause harm to photoreceptor cells in your retina that convert light to send signals to the brain. Lutein and zeaxanthin act as blue light filters, thereby limiting damage to the retina [34].

They prevent light-induced damage to the eyes by absorbing the harmful light wavelengths before the formation of reactive oxygen species (chemically reactive species containing oxygen). Macular pigments also chemically and physically destroy the reactive oxygen species once they are formed.

Lutein and zeaxanthin might also improve several aspects of visual performance, such as contrast sensitivity, temporal vision, ocular discomfort, glare disability, and photo-stress recovery.

At present, there is no recommended dietary allowance for lutein and zeaxanthin. However, research shows that a daily intake of 6mg might decrease the risk of retinal damage and age-related macular degeneration [34].

Lutein and zeaxanthin are available as over-the-counter supplements.

Final thoughts on computer eye strain

The recent increase in eye problems among VDT (visual display terminal) workers suggests that people are putting too much stress on their eyes. The technology keeps improving, and hopefully, sometime in the future our devices will be less harmful to the eyes.

In the meantime, however, it might be challenging to reduce the amount of time you spend on your digital devices. You have to use them for work or school, for entertainment, to communicate with others socially, and more. So, it becomes imperative that you give your eyes the proper rest, care, and nutrition to function at the highest level.

You can start with the eye strain prevention steps that are the easiest for you to implement. Maybe that’s taking time each day to blink more, or it could be changing the settings on your computer and smartphone. Over time, you can add additional steps like making changes to the workspace and improving your diet.

Finally, you can give your eyes an extra boost by supplementing with astaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin. The research seems to indicate that these powerful antioxidants protect your eyes against oxidative damage, improve vision health, and reduce symptoms of computer eye strain.

Reference List

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Agnit is the lead writer for uVitals. As an avid health and fitness enthusiast, he is passionate about writing content that helps people take control of their health to live happier, more productive lives. Someday, he plans to listen to his own advice and drink less coffee.

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