The ‘eyes’ have had it
Whether you call it computer vision syndrome or digital eyestrain, a cyber disorder is wreaking havoc on our eyes.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Nate Harkins, a doctor of optometry, knows there is no escaping the use of computers, especially for many professionals. In his Davis Duehr Dean office, Harkins sees patients who complain of eyestrain or headaches or neck pain but have no idea the source of their misery is the computer screen they’ve been staring into for hours. The multitude of symptoms caused by a condition alternately known as computer vision syndrome or digital eyestrain affects tens of millions of people, and there is really no way to escape it, just alleviate it.
“This digital age, this 21st century has kind of snuck up on us and everything we do [at work] is on electronic media now, and then we go home and we use the same things,” notes Harkins. “There is really not a break from it, ever.”
Anyone who uses computers at work, and increasingly for entertainment, is basically in the at-risk population. Globally an estimated 45 to 70 million people from a variety of professions spend multiple hours each day peering into a computer screen, and some of the health impacts are finally being evaluated. That does not include millions of children who have been born and raised in the digital age who also are staring at the blurred edges of electronic characters, which make it more difficult for the eyes to maintain focus.
“It’s thought that as much as 70% of the population uses a digital device for at least two to three hours a day,” notes Dr. Michael Shapiro, a board certified ophthalmologist affiliated with UnityPoint Health–Meriter. “I can tell you that in my patient population, it’s rare that a patient doesn’t come in telling me they use their computers or smartphones or laptops and their eyes get tired or they have another one of these constellation of symptoms we can talk about, and they can get those from staring at these devices.”
More evidence comes from the Vision Council, which represents the optical industry’s manufacturers and suppliers and says that 65% of Americans report experiencing symptoms of digital eyestrain.
A research paper on the topic was published in a recent edition of Medical Practice and Reviews and the report’s authors, eye care specialists Tope Raymond Akinbinu of Nigeria and Y. J. Mashalla of Botswana, cited four studies that claim the use of a computer for as little as three hours a day will likely result in symptoms related to the condition. Common symptoms include eyestrain, burning eyes, dry and itching eyes, tired eyes, problems with focusing, and blurred or double vision.
Some of these conditions already exist in patients, especially dry eyes, and excessive time in front of a computer screen can make them even worse. “The most common complaint is eyestrain,” notes Amy Walker, a licensed doctor of optometry who is affiliated with UW Health Clinics’ Eye Care Services and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “By the end of the day, they’ve had it. They are fatigued.”
Prolonged computer use can take us beyond vision-related complaints and into symptoms such as chronic headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and low back pain, some of which stems from an improper viewing distance from the eye to a computer screen.
Any computing device can cause computer vision syndrome, and not just personal computers, laptops, or tablets — the devices with larger screens. Smartphones are culprits, too.
In addition, the condition impacts people across a range of age groups if they spend enough time in front of computer screens (including video games), but the over-40 population is more impacted because they are already experiencing presbyopia, the gradual loss of focusing power in the eyes.
Not surprisingly, research has found that people who wear eyeglasses and contact lenses are particularly susceptible. Here then are seven coping mechanisms to mitigate the impacts of this vision villain.
#1: Follow the 20-20-20 rule
Aging professionals might never again have 20-20 vision, but by following the 20-20-20 rule they can alleviate the symptoms. The rule, which ophthalmologists embrace, is very simple: every 20 minutes take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away. The rule can be obeyed by scheduling prompts in your calendaring system.
“I usually tell patients to look out a window every 15 or 20 minutes,” Shapiro says.
#2 Tear up now and then
We don’t mean have a good cry, we mean use artificial tear products. If you have dry eyes, ophthalmologists recommend keeping your eyes moist with artificial tears, which can be purchased over the counter. Unlike commercial eye drops, artificial tear brands like Refresh, Sustain, and Tears Natural do not contain chemicals that when overused can cause irritation.
Walker encourages many of her contact lens and spectacle wearers to have a bottle of artificial tears on their desk. After a couple of hours, they should sit back in their chair and lubricate their eyes with it. “Then close your eyes for a whole minute, let it really absorb into your tissue, and don’t just start up again,” she advises. “I encourage my patients to do this several times a day.”
Harkins’ take is a bit different. “The artificial tears thing is sort of a tough one because they can be really helpful if you know that your problem is that your eyes are drying out because you’re staring at the computer,” he states. “To replenish that moisture is of course an excellent thing, no different than drinking water after you go for a run.”
The tough part, he adds, is when someone is dumping commercial drops in their eyes 15 or 20 times a day. If used too often, the preservatives that keep these drops in good condition also are known to be irritating to the eye’s surface. He tells patients not to use the regular eye drops more than four times a day. “For my patients who need to use them more often than that, we have them use preservative-free artificial tears that come in individual vials,” he notes. “Those can be really helpful.”