As I write this, my eyes feel itchy and sore. Is it from lack of sleep? Quite possibly. Or is my vision straining from a week of countless hours staring at a computer screen? Most likely. Like so many others, my job requires me to look constantly at a screen, something I’d never given much thought to until I decided I’d be switching my contact lenses to glasses for working hours to give my tired eyes a break. I’ve since discovered that, along with millions of other people, I could be suffering from computer vision syndrome – a condition which can affect anyone who spends three or more hours a day in front of computer monitors, and according to research, it can specifically affect accountants, architects, bankers, engineers, flight controllers, graphic artists, journalists, academicians, secretaries and students — all of whom “cannot work without the help of computer.”
A piece in the New York Times said the condition affects around 70 million people worldwide, including children who spend hours glued to computer games. “Studies have indicated 70 percent to 90 percent of people who use computers extensively, whether for work or play, have one or more symptoms of computer vision syndrome,” according to researchers Tope Raymond Akinbinu of Nigeria and Y. J. Mashalla of Botswana. The effects of prolonged computer use are not just vision-related – complaints include neurological symptoms like chronic headaches and musculoskeletal problems like neck and back pain and stress – yet the most common side effect is the strain on the eyes. Symptoms include blurred or double vision as well as burning, itching, dryness, and redness, all of which are not only irritants but hugely interfere with work performance.
Naturally, this is also an issue in Ireland. I contacted Claire McDonnell a lecturer in the Department of Optometry, DIT and Lynda McGivney-Nolan, Practicing optometrist and advisor to the Association of Optometrists Ireland, who both had an array of tips to hand for combatting the issue, but Lynda pointed out that we aren’t seeing an increase in the prevalence of eye-related issues for the population, the issue is that more and more are spending longer hours staring at a computer screen. “We’ll see an increase in the number of people with computer vision syndrome due to the growth of computer use – people are more aware of the problems that come with this.” She also explained that the use of tablets in schools is creating issues that shouldn’t be there for children. “Tablets are different to computer screens; it’s harder to focus on a tablet, your eyes have to do more work, and this means that children can experience issues that the previous generation wouldn’t have as they used books.” However, the good news is that once you’re aware of this, you can take steps to combat the problem.
Both Lynda and Claire said using the following tips could combat computer-related stresses:
- Make sure you get your eyes tested if you are experiencing eye strain. Sometimes, even when you can see well, small prescriptions can make your eyes tired on a computer when you are using it for a long time.
- If you already wear glasses or contact lenses, make sure you get regular eye check-ups to make sure the lenses are still right for your eyes – every year for contact lens wearers and every two years for glasses.
- If you do wear glasses, ask your optometrist about a special reflection-free coating on your lenses; this will help to reduce glare from the screen on your eyes.
- If you wear varifocals on a computer, make sure the screen is angled correctly to suit your eyes; this will help prevent back and neck strain.
- Take regular breaks and look at something in the distance. The Americans came up with the 20/20/20 rule – every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds or do 20 blinks; this helps to relieve your internal eye muscles and maintain good tears film over the surface of your eye.
- Don’t move closer to see something. This just puts more strain on your eyes. Increase the font size on your computer instead.
- Never sit with your back to a window or facing a window; this will result in the glare from either the window or the screen and make your eyes tired and strained.
- Don’t have a big difference between the illumination of your computer screen and the ambient illumination (i.e. don’t look at a computer screen in an otherwise dark room).
- Make sure you keep hydrated; a hydrated body means hydrated eyes. Using a computer can make your eyes drier, especially in an office atmosphere; drinking plenty of water and avoiding caffeine, will help keep your eyes bright and moist.
- You should never sit closer than arms length distance from your monitor.
- Make sure you take regular movement breaks, this can also help to rest your eyes if you get up and move around for a few minutes and stretch.