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Digital Eye Strain Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments

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Woman holding glasses and rubbing tired eyes in front of laptop

Have your eyes been sore lately after looking at screens? You aren’t the only one. Digital Eye Strain (or DES) is a growing problem around the world—especially for people who also have other vision problems.

What causes DES, how can you recognize the signs, and most importantly—what can you do to prevent this condition from significantly impacting your life? Don’t worry; we’re here to tell you all about digital eye strain’s causes, symptoms, and treatments so that you can take an informed approach to protecting your vision.

What is Digital Eye Strain?

Digital eye strain affects many millions of people and has been the subject of increased scientific study during the last few decades as more people have started using digital devices on an everyday basis.

DES often occurs when the tiny muscles that help your eyes focus become exhausted after long periods of screen time. When these muscles become tired, they become sore and less responsive (just like any other muscles in your body). The resulting headaches and difficulty focusing are two of digital eye strain’s most obvious symptoms.

Blue light exposure may also play a prominent role in digital eye strain. Blue light is a specific wavelength of High Energy Visible light (or HEV) produced by most digital displays. Your eyes have greater difficulty focusing blue light than other wavelengths of visible light, which causes the muscles responsible to become exhausted faster than they would if you were staring at another object close to your face (such as a book).

Research also suggests that blue light can disturb your circadian rhythms, which regulate our sleep schedules according to the amount of light in our environment. Exposing yourself to too much blue light before bedtime may cause you to sleep less, and can also make the quality of your sleep worse.

What Are the Symptoms of Digital Eye Strain?

DES can produce other symptoms besides headaches and trouble focusing on nearby objects. If you are experiencing DES, you may also notice:

  • Excessive tearing
  • Tired eyes, even after resting or sleeping
  • Blurry vision
  • General fatigue
  • A burning sensation
  • Redness near the eyes
  • Double vision
  • A stiff neck
  • Headaches
  • Back aches
  • Dry eyes

As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, dry eyes can cause significant discomfort on top of the other symptoms listed. It’s best to avoid DES to the best of your ability and take steps to manage it if you start to experience symptoms.

Man using artificial tears to relieve dryness caused by digital eye strain

What Treatments Exist For Digital Eye Strain?

The easiest way to handle DES is to prevent it from affecting you. Many eye doctors recommend using the “20/20/20” rule to reduce your risk of developing digital eye strain. Whenever you are using a digital device, pause once every 20 minutes and focus on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Doing so will give the muscles that focus your eyes a break and allow them to recalibrate.

However, the 20/20/20 rule won’t protect your eyes from the effects of blue light. For that, you may want to invest in a pair of computer glasses—a type of specialty eyewear designed specifically to filter out blue light from digital displays. Some research suggests that wearing these glasses before sleeping can prevent blue light from your digital displays from impacting your circadian rhythms, improving the quality and quantity of your sleep.

If you are already experiencing DES, try the following tips to reduce its effects:

  • Position your screens on an even level with your eyes, or just slightly below your eyeline
  • Ensure that your screens are at least an arm’s length from your face during use
  • Change the font size on your computer and phone screens to make it easier to read at a distance and prevent yourself from squinting
  • Adjust the brightness on your screens so that all text and images are clearly visible
  • Adjust the temperature and humidity in rooms with devices to improve air quality
  • Spend less time using digital devices
  • Consult your eye doctor about which artificial tears are most appropriate for you

Finally, the simple answer is that you may be using the wrong glasses. There are spectacle lenses designed specifically for computer and office work. Moreover, there are several variations depending on how each individual uses their digital devices. Your eye doctor and their optical staff can help determine which spectacle lens option is most suitable for you.

Take Your Life Back From Digital Eye Strain

Digital eye strain is a problem for many people, but it doesn’t have to be one for you. Use what you’ve learned above to reduce your risk for this common condition, and contact an eye doctor in your area for more information on safely using screens.

Written by Dr. Robert MacAlpine

Dr. MacAlpine graduated from Queen’s University, and attended the New England College of Optometry in Boston, MA. He graduated in 1999 with clinical and academic honours and was recipient of the Alcon Award for Most Outstanding Contact Lens Clinician. His internships included Pediatric and Low Vision focused training, several Veteran Affairs Hospitals in the greater Boston area, and the Barnet Dulaney Cataract and LASIK Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After graduating, Dr. MacAlpine established a successful practice and optical store in the Boston area. Practicing in the United States allowed him privileges of treatment and prescribing for eye diseases that were not permitted to Ontario Optometrists until 2011. Robert was thrilled to return to his native Ontario in 2011 to raise his two daughters, Deanna and Ella with his wife Amy. He enjoys playing hockey and being active with his family.
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