NEW YORK – Feb. 3, 2014 – One day after Sarah Hinkley had been working on her computer for about five hours, she noticed her eyes started to burn and feel dry. “My focus became blurry, like I was looking through a haze,” she says.
As an optometrist, Hinkley knew exactly what was wrong. She was suffering from digital eye strain, also known as computer vision syndrome.
It’s becoming a widespread problem as more people spend hours each day looking at computers, cellphones, iPads, tablets and other electronic devices, says Hinkley, a spokeswoman for the American Optometric Association and an associate professor at the Ferris State University Michigan College of Optometry. “It is rampant, especially as we move toward smaller devices and the prominence of devices increase in our everyday lives.”
In fact, almost 70 percent of U.S. adults say they have experienced some of the symptoms of digital eye strain, according to a survey conducted for the Vision Council, a trade group for vision care products and services. About 60 percent of respondents say they spend at least six hours looking at screens daily.
The problem is starting to occur more frequently in youths, Hinkley says. “As children acquire cellphones at younger ages and are using them more frequently during the day, we are seeing the symptoms presenting in younger children more than we have before.”
The symptoms may include dry, red and irritated eyes, fatigue, eye strain, blurry vision, problems focusing, headaches, neck and shoulder pain and possibly even words moving on the screen because of underlying eye alignment issues, which are binocular vision (how the eyes work together) problems, she says. The latter is not as common as dry eyes, eye strain and blurry vision.
There are some people who can use a computer for hours without any issues, but others who have an underlying dry eye issue may be bothered by symptoms after 10 minutes on the computer, she says. The syndrome causes discomfort but doesn't typically cause vision loss or any permanent damage, Hinkley says.
Brooklyn optometrist Justin Bazan, a consultant to the Vision Council, says some research suggests the blue light (high-energy visible light) emitted by screens could lead to age-related macular degeneration. Studies of pig eyes show blue light damages the cells of the retina, he says.
He suggests using a pair of computer glasses that use a specifically treated lens to block the potentially damaging blue light. “This is something I recommend and prescribe for my patients,” he says.
James Sheedy, a professor at Pacific University College of Optometry, says that although blue light can damage the retina, the radiation from digital devices is much less than any daylight outdoor environment. Sunglass protection outdoors is much more important.
Hinkley says there is some research evidence that blue light may contribute to macular degeneration development, but further investigation is needed to explore any connection with screen use.
In the meantime, there are several approaches to treatment for digital eye strain, Hinkley says. The primary ones are to limit screen time and/or take frequent breaks. Some people use artificial tear solutions or other treatments for dryness, and others may need vision therapy including focusing therapy if they have underlying issues with their focusing or binocular vision systems.
Digital eye strain can be exacerbated in adults who wear prescription eyewear because sometimes bifocals and progressive lenses are not ergonomically suited for reading on the computer, she says.
She recommends indirect lighting rather than a lamp pointing at the screen, which may create glare. If your monitor faces a window, you should have it an angle to reduce glare.
Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY, Nanci Hellmich