When you focus for long periods working on the computer, reading a book or driving, you may start to experience what is often thought of as "eye strain." In fact, there is no one condition called eye strain.
"Eye strain is more of a symptom than an actual condition," explains Laurie Barber, MD, a comprehensive ophthalmologist in Little Rock, Ark. "People use the term differently. One person may mean their eyes are tired or watery, while another may have blurred vision. Some people may have headaches they attribute to eye strain, and others may have facial muscle fatigue from squinting for long periods because they are not wearing the correct glasses."
Eye strain does not injure the eye and does not cause permanent damage, Dr. Barber said. "But it's worthwhile to make simple changes when you are concentrating on a task to increase your eye comfort."
What Causes Eye Strain?
In many cases, eye strain symptoms are caused by looking at something for long periods without blinking. This can cause the eyes to feel dry. Eye strain from looking at a computer is no different from strain caused by driving or reading for hours. Sitting near a vent that is blowing hot or cold air in a person's face also can make eyes dry out more quickly.
An incorrect prescription for glasses or contacts can cause blurriness, which can increase the feelings of eye strain, Dr. Barber said. Working in an environment that is too bright or not bright enough also can cause visual discomfort.
"If we have poor posture when we do tasks, it can cause neck, shoulder and back pain, which can add to the discomfort we feel and some people may attribute it to eye strain," she added.
Reduce Eye Strain from Computer Use
To reduce the feeling of eye strain from prolonged computer use, you can take several steps, including using artificial tears, adjusting your computer screen so your eye gaze is slightly downward, and putting a humidifier next to your desk.
Also use the "20-20-20" rule: Every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds.
Driving Tips for Eye Comfort
To reduce eye strain when you're driving, Dr. Barber recommends:
When to See an Ophthalmologist
If you are still experiencing eye strain after adjusting your computer or workspace, see an ophthalmologist. You'll be asked about your eye symptoms, including when they happen and how long they last. The doctor will check for dry eye, examine the eye muscles and determine whether you need eyeglasses or contacts, or if your current prescription is correct.