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Excruciating Eyesight
Frequent Computer Use Can Tax Your Vision, But Doesn’t Have To

February 27th, 2004

By Louis Wittig :eCureMe Staff Writer
February 25th, 2004 : Physician Approved

You’ve just got a couple more pages to go before you finish typing up that report, balancing that spreadsheet or researching that term paper - but you just can’t go on. After hours of staring at your monitor, your eyes are raw and feel about ready to burst. Sound familiar? Chances are it does, but you’ve never known to call it by its name - Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS).

Between work, school and home, 143 million Americans use computers - and according to the American Optometric Association, 75% suffer the symptoms of CVS: dry, fatigued and irritated eyes, blurred vision, headaches and neck and back pain. In addition to countless aches and pains, each year CVS drains workers’ productivity and costs $2 billion to treat.

As computer use increases, computer vision symptoms may edge out carpal tunnel as the nation’s workplace scourge. Insurance companies have already developed new policies specifically to cover the masses of sore-eyed workers who will file claims. If ungluing yourself from a monitor isn’t an option, a few minor changes to your computer use routine could make all the difference.

Traumatized Eyes

Computer Vision Syndrome isn’t a solid set of symptoms that can be traced to a single cause. Instead, it’s a catchall term that encompasses a variety of symptoms that resulting from a number of underlying problems.

One of the central difficulties is that our eyes just weren’t designed for the type of work we do in front of a computer. In the course of an average workday, workers are often forced to look back and forth between a computer screen and paper documents. In most cases, the screen is directly in front of and a little above or below the worker’s line of sight, while the paper documents are lying horizontally on the surface of the desk. According to Dr. Jeffery Anshel, OD, an optometrist and CVS specialist in Carlsbad, California, "we prefer to read at a lower posture." When someone has to keep glancing between a quarterly report and an e-mail to the boss, "they’re going from a lower, horizontal work surface to a vertical one." The movement causes the eyes to have to continually refocus - something that’s unnatural and can cause strain.

The strain of having to focus and refocus can be worsened by the drying out of eyes as they look at a monitor. In a normal environment, people blink about 22 times every minute in order to keep the surface of the eye moistened. Studies have shown that when using a computer, the rate drops to between four and six blinks a minute. Though scientists don’t know why this is, the results can be painfully clear: itching and burning sensations, blurry vision, fatigue and heavy eyelids.

When dry eyes set in, people will arch their foreheads forward in order to keep seeing clearly. Headaches ensue. As the pain from both eyes and head starts to weigh on a computer user, they may unconsciously move around in their chair, or shift their posture to try and alleviate the discomfort. These contortions can throw a body out of line and cause back and shoulder pain as well as neck stiffness.

Difficulty in seeing can also be in the cards for glasses wearers. If you wear glasses for reading, but your monitor is farther away than you usually hold your newspaper, your vision isn’t being corrected correctly. Bifocals can present an additional problem. Often, bifocal wearers will peer through the lower section of their lenses while reading off a monitor, like they would if they were looking down at a piece of paper. Since the screen is at eye level, not below, they’ll often have to tilt their neck - which after a while can lead back to neck and shoulder pain.

Looking Better

The good news is that while it may be the 21st century’s most common occupational hazard, there’s no evidence that CVS causes any long-term damage to the eyes. Relieving the discomfort isn’t difficult either. Making a few simple changes to your workspace and routine can make a big difference.
  • Dr. Anshel counsels that when your eyes are feeling chafed, you should "try the three B approach - blink, breathe and break." Making an extra effort to blink while you’re working with a computer keeps your eyes from drying out, and deep breathing increases their blood flow. When taking a break from staring at a monitor, follow another simple rule. " It’s the 20/20/20 approach," says Anshel. " Every 20 minutes, look away from your monitor for 20 seconds and look at an object or point about 20 feet away." Doing so allows the eyes to relax.

  • If trying to blink more doesn’t work, consider applying artificial tears periodically to help re-moisten the surface of the eye. Many contact lens solutions work great, though it’s important to stay away from drops that are marketed to "get the red out" such as Visine - they don’t work in the same way as artificial tears.

  • The glare from surrounding light sources can make it more difficult to for your eyes to focus on the screen. If you can, position your monitor so that parallel to light fixtures or windows. If you can’t, consider fitting a glare-reducing screen onto your monitor.

  • If you’re doing work that requires you to look between paper documents and a monitor, position the documents on a copy stand so that they’re at the same distance, angle and level as your monitor. This will prevent your eyes from having to continually refocus.

  • Position your monitor between 18 to 30 inches away from your eyes. This is the distance on which eyes naturally focus. If you have difficulty reading text off the monitor at this distance, consider increasing your computer’s font size.

  • If you’re still nursing sore eyes after having taken these steps, see an optometrist. Special tests have been developed to diagnose CVS, and special prescriptions can be written to supplement the lenses you already have. If you don’t currently wear glasses or contacts, long-term difficulty with computer screens might be an indication that you need to.

Contact Louis Wittig at

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