Computer Vision Syndrome & Eye Strain

Anyone who works with computers for a prolonged period of time will be all too familiar with the sore eyes and blurred vision that comes from over exposure to digital screens. Doctors now have a catch-all term for this screen-induced discomfort: ‘Computer vision syndrome’.

This very modern problem is caused by the fact that we spend more time in front of screens than ever before. Office workers in particular can spend almost all of their working day sat in front of the computer. Many eat their lunch at their desks, before going home to stare at a computer, ipad or television screen.

So just how is the modern workplace damaging our eyes, and what can we do to protect ourselves?

Computer eye strain is often associated with headaches, difficulty focusing, blurred vision, dry or watery eyes and increased sensitivity to light. Many will complain they have “tired eyes”.

Woman at desk with phone – Computer Vision Syndrome & eye strain

Most of these symptoms are caused by:

  • Bad lighting – The lack of good lighting is one of the leading causes of eye discomfort in the office. ‘Good lighting’ can be defined as enough illumination to see printed, handwritten or computer based documents clearly, without having to strain the eyes.
  • Sitting too close to the screen – The closer you are to the screen, the greater your risk of eye fatigue and blurred vision. If you can’t see the screen clearly, it’s time you visit the optician.
  • Working with old monitors – Older monitors and low-resolution screens make the eyes work harder than they should. Flat panel, high resolution screens are much gentler on the eyes.
  • Screens placed too high – Screens should ideally be place low on a desktop so you are looking down rather than up. Screens placed high up can cause neck pain and also dry eye from poor lid closure and decreased blinking.
  • Excessive overhead lighting – Excessive lighting can damage your eyes over time. Make sure any overhead lighting is no brighter than your screen.
  • Poor posture – Many of us tend to sit at computers with rounded backs and our chins jutting forward just to get closer to the screen. If you can’t see your computer screen while adopting a good posture, it’s time for an eye test.
  • Using small fonts – Staring at small text can make you squint and also lean closer to the screen. This can cause eye fatigue and headaches.
Person typing on laptop – computer vision syndrome and eye strain at laptop

Protecting your eyes in the workplace

Thankfully, there are a number of simple steps we can take to give our eyes the respite they need.

  • Adjust your computer display settings – Your screen should look neither like a light source nor seem too dull and grey. As a guide, the brightness of your screen should be similar to your surroundings. In terms of contrast, black text against a white background usually works best. Also adjust the text size so you can view it comfortably.
  • Remember to blink! – It might sound ridiculous, but when we look at computer screens we tend to stare, which dries out our eyes. So, remember to blink. This gives our eyes the moisture they need.
  • The 20-20-20 rule – After looking at a computer screen for 20 minutes, take a 20 second break to look at something at least 20 feet away and then close your eyes for 20 seconds. Our eyes have muscles that help them focus on different objects. If we stare at something like a screen without a break, the muscles can have a hard time adjusting.
  • Take regular breaks – Taking short, regular breaks is an incredibly effective way of reducing eye strain. Having four five-minute ‘mini-breaks’ throughout the day can make all the difference. Studies have also shown that these extras breaks have no adverse impact on productivity.
  • Consider wearing glasses – Wearing the right prescription glasses can radically change your working experience. Also, when sitting for several hours in front of a screen, try to avoid contact lenses as they may become dry and give you discomfort. If you want to move away from glasses and lenses altogether and make a life change consider laser eye surgery and check whether you’re suitable.

Author Information

Authored by Sheraz Daya MD FACP FACS FRCS(Ed) FRCOphth, Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon & Medical Director, June 2019.

Next review due June 2020.