close-up of a woman's eye

Find yourself suffering from eye strain lately, or chronic headaches? Do your eyes water more than they used to, or turn red easily? Have you accepted burning eyes as a fact of life?

Medically termed "asthenopia," excessive eye strain has increased over the years, particularly with the explosive use of computers and smart phones. In fact, according to a study recently published in Optometry and Vision Science, viewing websites on smart phones creates conditions that encourage eye strain, and can lead to headaches and blurry or fluctuating vision. An earlier study published in Headache found that eye strain was more common in cases of chronic headaches than generally recognized.

Is it only computers and small screens that cause eye strain, or are there other ways that we inadvertently tax our peepers? Is eye strain unavoidable in today's high-tech world, or are there ways we can avoid it and enjoy more comfortable vision?

Computer Vision Syndrome
Eye strain can cause several uncomfortable symptoms including fatigue, blurred vision, eye soreness, burning eyes, headaches, neck and shoulder stiffness, dry eyes, difficulty reading, irritability, and poor concentration. Computer use is by far the number-one cause of eye strain in most children and adults today. In fact, it's become so common that there's now an official name for it--Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS).

According to the American Optometric Association, viewing a computer screen increases the workload on the eyes for several reasons. First, the letters on the screen may not be as precise or sharply defined as those on a printed page, requiring the muscles to work harder to focus. The glare and reflections on the screen can make viewing difficult, and the viewing distance and angle may be less than optimal.

If you're looking at the screen and then at papers on your desk, the eyes have to consistently compensate. Finally, you may not blink as often as you would otherwise. Some studies have found that normal, healthy people may experience a 5-fold drop in blink rate when using a computer or other visual display unit. Since blinking affects the moisture of the eye, less blinking can lead to dry eyes.

Other Causes of Eye strain
Though the use of computer screens tops the list of causes of eye strain, there are many other factors that may contribute. Reading web pages on a small smart phone screen compels most people to hold the device closer than they would a newspaper, forcing their eyes to work harder than usual. New 3D mobile phones and televisions increase the demand on eyes, causing eye strain, fatigue, and headaches.

Lighting levels that are less than optimal--either too bright or too dim--can increase the risk of eye strain, as can fluorescent lights, which "flicker" at high rates and can cause eye strain and migraines in sensitive people. Bad viewing angles, high glare, poor posture, and uncorrected vision problems can also encourage sore eyes.

Fortunately, with a few changes, you can make your eyes more comfortable even when you're surfing the Internet.

Tips to Help Prevent Eye strain
Preventing eye strain may be as easy as looking away from the computer now and then, or adjusting your workstation. Try these tips for happier eyes and fewer headaches.

  • Take breaks. Every 30 minutes, look away from your computer screen. Close your eyes and relax for a couple minutes, or look out the window and blink. Better yet, get up and take a short walk.
  • Gain some distance. Put some distance between you and your computer screen, smart phone, or television (at least 20-28 inches). Distance helps your eyes focus with less effort. If you have trouble reading the page at a distance, increase the font size or zoom in on the part of the page you want to see. Remember you can also adjust the brightness.
  • Line up your focus. If you have to work with a printed page and a computer screen at the same time, place the printed page on a stand next to your screen so they are both at the same distance, which helps relieve the strain on your eyes of having to constantly adjust between the two focusing distances.
  • Reduce glare. Make sure your computer or TV screen reflects no glare from the windows or overhead lights, and use a glare filter on the screen. Position your screen slightly below eye level so you can look down on it.
  • Print it out. If you find an article you want to read, print it out rather than reading it on screen. Your eyes will thank you!
  • Get regular checkups. If your glasses are outdated, chances are your eyes are working harder than they need to for clear focusing. See your eye doctor annually.
  • Direct your light. When reading or working on a project, position the light source behind you so it falls on your page or on the project. Avoid letting the light shine into your eyes.
  • Use artificial tears. Over-the-counter artificial teardrops can help prevent dry eyes.