Digital Eye Strain

What is Digital Eye Strain?

Digital eye strain describes the symptoms you experience after spending long periods on a digital device such as a computer, smartphone, or tablet. This condition is also known as computer vision syndrome, although the term digital eye strain is more inclusive of all digital devices. 

Studies estimate that 90 percent of digital device users experience digital eye strain symptoms.

Digital eye strain symptoms include:

  • Eye strain or fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty refocusing between near and far distances
  • Tired eyes
  • Double vision
  • Dry eyes
  • Headaches
  • Light sensitivity
  • Neck or shoulder discomfort
Icon of an eyeball with a horizontal line and mismatched color

Causes of Digital Eye Strain

Several factors contribute to digital eye strain. These causes include:

  • Not using proper eyewear. Ask your eye doctor if you may benefit from a pair of computer glasses. People with vision problems such as astigmatism, hyperopia (farsightedness), or presbyopia (age-related near vision changes) often wear glasses while using digital devices. Your doctor can also recommend special tints or coatings to make your eyes more comfortable and relieve eye strain.
  • Blue light exposure. Digital device screens emit a small amount of blue light, far less than the amount we get from the sun. Some studies found that blue light exposure can contribute to digital eye strain. However, other research suggests more evidence is necessary to confirm these findings.
  • Glare. Glare occurs when light bounces off your digital device screen and enters your eyes. This can fatigue your eyes quickly.
  • Dry eyes. Several signs of digital eye strain are associated with dry eyes. Staring at a screen causes you to blink less frequently, which in turn exacerbates dry eye symptoms. Dry eye causes irritation, tired eyes, blurry vision, and light sensitivity.
  • Close viewing distance. The closer you hold a digital device to your face, the harder your eye muscles work to focus your vision. If you do this for prolonged periods, your eyes are more likely to fatigue.
  • Poor posture. Depending on how your chair, desk, and digital device are set up, your posture can contribute to eye strain. 
digital eye strain posture

Risks and Dangers of Digital Eye Strain 

Digital eye strain symptoms are usually temporary. Common symptoms include migraines, chronic neck and back pain, and disrupted sleep. The more time spent viewing digital devices, the longer your symptoms may last.

If you regularly spend time on a computer, smartphone, or tablet, there are some risks you should be aware of:

  • Migraines. Digital eye strain can trigger migraine headaches in some people. Light flickering or glare on the screen are common migraine triggers. Digital eye strain can also cause ocular migraines. Symptoms of ocular migraines include flashing lights, wavy lines in your vision, blind spots, and temporary blackout of your vision. Ocular migraines can occur with or without a headache.
  • Chronic neck and back pain. Poor posture while looking at a digital device can lead to more than just eye and vision symptoms. Many people suffer neck and back pain after computer use, which can add to any discomfort from digital eye strain issues. Over time, these problems can become chronic and require medical treatment, such as chiropractic adjustments.
  • Disrupted sleep cycle. Studies find that exposure to blue light, especially before bedtime, can disrupt your sleep. Try not to use your digital devices right before bed. If you cannot avoid doing so, consider using blue light blocking lenses or adjusting your device settings to filter out blue light.

There is not enough scientific evidence to demonstrate that our digital devices cause eye diseases such as cataracts or macular degeneration. While large amounts of blue light exposure can damage our eyes, the amount of exposure from our devices is quite small. The current research suggests there is no reason for people to worry that using their smartphones will cause macular degeneration or cataracts.

Icon of a pair of glasses

How to Relieve Digital Eye Strain

You may not be able to avoid looking at digital devices, but there are many things you can do to make your experience more comfortable. Here are some ways to relieve digital eye strain:

  • Lubricate your eyes. Instill lubricating drops throughout the day while working on a computer. Keep a bottle at your desk as a reminder to use them.
  • Use a humidifier. Many people work in an office or similar environment where the air is dry due to heating or air conditioning. You can purchase a humidifier to help prevent dry eye.
  • Blink frequently. Remind yourself to blink more often while looking at a screen. This will help distribute fresh tears across your eyes and keep them moist.
  • Wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Contact lenses can aggravate dry eyes. Consider wearing glasses if you plan to use a computer for extended periods.
  • Adjust your room lighting to minimize glare. Try to avoid any direct lighting on your digital device to reduce reflections off the screen. If you sit near a window, close the blinds or curtains if possible.
  • Use anti-glare protection. Use a screen cover that reduces glare on your digital device. If you have computer glasses, an anti-reflective coating reduces glare off the surface of your lenses.
  • Consider blue light blocking lenses. Research shows mixed results on whether or not blue light blocking glasses relieve digital eye strain. Even so, many eye doctors are still recommending blue light blocking glasses or blue light screen protectors for digital devices. Studies have not shown any disadvantage of using blue light blocking lenses.
  • Exercise your eyes and back. The 20-20-20 rule is an easy way to keep your eyes relaxed. Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen for 20 seconds, at an object at least 20 feet away. While you are performing this exercise, you can stand up and stretch your neck and back to relieve any stiffness or discomfort.
  • Adjust your workstation. Set your computer so that the center of the screen is about 15 to 20 degrees below your eye level. Sit at least 20 inches away from your computer screen, or 16 inches from a tablet or smaller device. If you find yourself leaning closer to see, try enlarging the font on your screen.

Author: Melody Huang, O.D. | UPDATED April 22, 2020

Resources

Coles‐Brennan, Chantal, et al. “Management of Digital Eye Strain.” Clinical and Experimental Optometry, vol. 102, no. 1, 23 May 2018, pp. 18–29., doi:10.1111/cxo.12798.

Hayne, Daniel P., and Paul R. Martin. “Relating Photophobia, Visual Aura, and Visual Triggers of Headache and Migraine.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, vol. 59, no. 3, 8 Feb. 2019, pp. 430–442., doi:10.1111/head.13486.

Palavets, Tatsiana, and Mark Rosenfield. “Blue-Blocking Filters and Digital Eyestrain.” Optometry and Vision Science, vol. 96, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 48–54., doi:10.1097/opx.0000000000001318.

Ratnayake, Kasun, et al. “Blue Light Excited Retinal Intercepts Cellular Signaling.” Scientific Reports, vol. 8, 5 July 2018, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-28254-8.

Sheppard, Amy L, and James S Wolffsohn. “Digital Eye Strain: Prevalence, Measurement and Amelioration.” BMJ Open Ophthalmology, vol. 3, 2018, doi:10.1136/bmjophth-2018-000146.

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