Eyestrain can cause symptoms including headache, dry eyes, and light sensitivity. Treating and preventing eyestrain can depend on what’s causing it.

Many of us know what it’s like to have a headache. Depending on the cause, it can trigger sharp, dull, or throbbing pain. Headaches range in severity and can affect any part of your head.

One uncommon cause of headaches is eye strain.

This can happen when you focus on a task, like using a computer, for too long. It can also occur when your eyes try to focus in light that’s too bright or dim. Essentially, eye strain is when your eyes get tired due to overuse.

Eye strain is also associated with symptoms like:

If you have eyestrain, it doesn’t mean your eyes are injured or damaged. Your headache and other symptoms should ease or go away completely once you rest your eyes.

Still, eyestrain headaches can be frustrating and disruptive. They might make it difficult to focus on work, school, or other projects.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at why eye strain causes headaches, how you can find relief, and ways to prevent these kinds of headaches from derailing your day.

There are many kinds of headaches. The most common types include:

These headaches require different treatment and care than an eye strain headache. That’s why it’s important to know how to recognize an eye strain headache, which is mild when compared with other headache types.

Signs of an eyestrain headache

  • Develops after prolonged eye activity. Eyestrain headaches appear after you focus on something for a long time. They won’t develop when you wake up or if you haven’t been reading, watching, or focusing on something for a period of time.
  • Pain gets better with rest. Typically, an eyestrain headache will subside once you rest your eyes.
  • No digestive discomfort. Unlike other types of headaches, eyestrain headaches are rarely associated with vomiting or nausea.
  • Pain behind your eyes. The pain is usually located behind or around your eyes. The area might feel sore or tired.
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When you look at objects or screens at a close range, the muscles in and around your eyes need to work harder to focus. Over time, these muscles can get sore and tired, just like any other muscle in your body.

Similarly, squinting for a long period of time may trigger spasms in your facial muscles and the muscles around your eyes. These spasms can lead to eyestrain headaches.

To identify the cause of your eyestrain headache, consider what you were doing before your symptoms developed. This will help you determine how to reduce discomfort.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common causes of eyestrain headaches.

Prolonged use of digital screens

Looking at a digital screen for a long time is the most common cause of eyestrain. In this case, the condition is called digital eyestrain or computer vision syndrome.

When you focus on a screen, you tend to blink less often. This can lead to dry eyes, which may cause irritation.

The following scenarios might also worsen digital eyestrain:

  • excessive glare or reflection on your screen
  • low contrast between the screen text and background
  • digital screens placed at incorrect distances
  • poor posture

You’re more likely to develop digital eyestrain if you look at a screen for 2 or more hours without taking a break.

Prolonged focus on a single task

It’s possible to develop eyestrain without using a digital screen. Your eyes can get tired after continual focus on a single activity for a long time. These include:

  • long-distance driving
  • reading a book
  • working on a project, like sewing or drawing

Vision problems

Uncorrected vision can also cause eyestrain. You might need prescription glasses or contact lenses to help you see things clearly. If you already wear them, you may need a different prescription.

If your vision is uncorrected, your eyes will need to work harder to try and form a clear image. This can make your eyes tired and lead to eyestrain headaches.

Bright or dim lights

It’s difficult to see clearly in light that’s too bright or too dim. You might need to squint your eyes to see.

You may have experienced this while driving a car on a sunny day without sunglasses, or walking into a dark room. As your eyes try to focus, they can become tired and strained.

You can reduce your chances of getting these kinds of headaches by taking some simple steps. Here’s what you can do.

Prevention tips

  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Take frequent breaks while using digital screens. The 20-20-20 rule involves looking at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.
  • Blink often. Dry eyes can worsen your eyestrain symptoms. Blinking often will help moisten your eyes. You can also use artificial tears to help prevent dry eyes.
  • Avoid using screens in the dark. Your eyes will need to work extra hard to focus in the dark. The light from your screen should be similar to the light in the room to make it easier on your eyes.
  • Adjust your screen. Place your screen at least 25 inches away from your eyes. Position the screen slightly below eye level to avoid straining upward. Try not to position your screen too far below eye level, though, because it could strain your neck muscles.
  • Use proper lighting. Point your indoor light source, like a lamp, away from your eyes. To reduce screen glare, make sure the light source shines away from your computer screen.
  • Avoid prolonged use of contact lenses. This could cause eye irritation and strain.
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In addition to modifying your habits, you can also relieve eyestrain headaches at home by taking the following steps.

  • Wear prescription glasses. Using reading or computer glasses may provide relief. If you have glasses to correct your vision, be sure to use your most recent prescription.
  • Close your eyes. Simply resting your eyes for several minutes can ease your symptoms.
  • Use artificial tears. Dryness can make your eyestrain worse. Using artificial tears may help moisten your eyes and offer relief.
  • Take an NSAID. If you have a stubborn eyestrain headache, an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) may help.

Often, simply making lifestyle changes — like those suggested in this article — can reduce the occurrence of your eyestrain headaches.

Visit a doctor if your headaches persist even after making these changes. You should also see a doctor if you have these symptoms along with your headaches:

Be sure to get regular eye exams, even if you have good vision. Your eye doctor can check for other problems like eye muscle imbalance.

When your eyes work too hard, your eye muscles may contract too much. These contractions can trigger an eyestrain headache. Often, these headaches cause pain and discomfort behind your eyes.

You may develop an eyestrain headache after focusing on a task for too long. Fortunately, you can usually find relief just by letting your eyes rest. It also helps to wear glasses or contact lenses that are the correct prescription.

If lifestyle changes don’t help, visit a doctor. They can determine whether an underlying condition is causing your headaches.