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Electronic eye strain
Computer vision syndrome can be a problem when constantly using devices


September 2014

Advances in technology may boost our productivity in the workplace, but increasing evidence shows those advances also are making our collective eyesight worse.

As many offices now focus nearly their entire workflow on employees sitting at cubicles staring for hours at electronic screen displays, a new form of eye strain called computer vision syndrome is being diagnosed and treated by optometrists across the country.

"I see it a lot more, itís pretty common now," says Dr. Brian McGinley, an optometrist at Optix on Downer in Milwaukee. "I definitely see patients (with that issue) every week."

"Thatís usually part of the discussion in a normal eye exam," says Dr. Wanda Martinez, a comprehensive ophthalmologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin Eye Institute. "Are you driving OK? Are you reading OK? I also ask about the computer ó is that a problem?"

"Itís not a condition of the older generation. Patients in their 60s, 70s and 80s didnít have this kind of problem that our generation has."

A recent study shows that between 50 and 90 percent of people who work at a computer have some symptoms of eye trouble. Computer vision syndrome is not unlike other work-related repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

As computer use increased exponentially in recent years, an increase in eye strain was inevitable. "The eye muscle is a fluid system," says McGinley. "A lot of people have to focus on the computer screen for 10 straight hours. After a while, that system becomes locked up. It can get into almost like a spasm in the sense that you start to lose some of the flexibility."

"People focus intently on information that passes by so quickly," says Martinez. "The eyes get tired and dry."

After long hours on the computer, vision can get blurry, says McGinley. And thereís no set time when the condition will present itself. That largely depends on an individualís overall eye health.

People who struggle with the condition vary in age, but the most common age group being treated for computer vision syndrome is 18 to 35, says McGinley.

Work produced on personal computers, laptops, tablets, phones and yet undiscovered devices is not likely to go away anytime soon. But there are ways to lessen eye strain at the office.

"The No. 1 thing is to try to change your focus, change your focus from the near proximal computer screen to far (with a vantage point of 18 to 22 inches from the screen depending on the type and size of the screen.) Get up and take breaks if possible," says McGinley.

"Breaks are important," agrees Martinez. "You need to step away, look away and blink. Not blinking often, focusing on the computer, you get your eyes dry."

Try anti-glare computer screens and changes in lighting ó nonfluorescent, softer lighting is best. Special glasses and lenses also can help ease the stress of extended computer viewing.

"A lot of cases we can help with glasses," says McGinley, who recommends adjusting glare, lighting and viewing distance before exploring special glasses. "For some people, different eye drops can help. Youíre sitting there staring, not blinking as much and eyes can dry out."

Martinez recommends keeping a bottle of artificial tears handy to combat dryness and says reading glasses are not ideal for computer screen viewing.

"Computer distance glasses that are purchased over the counter generally should be weaker than reading glasses, about 1 diopter (the unit of measurement) weaker. If youíre using plus-2.50 for reading, you should use plus-1.50 for computers." says Martinez, who adds that anyone with prescription reading glasses could have computer glasses made to fit their individual eyesight.

Even something as simple as a change in font style to create a more vision-friendly contrast in letters can make a big difference.

If you spend much of your day looking at computer screens and begin experiencing headaches or eye strain, you should see your optometrist, says McGinley. "There will be certain tests to see how bad it is, if the accommodation of the focusing system is compromised due to all of this excessive computer use over the years."

"If you address it daily you wonít have those days where you canít stand it and your day will be more comfortable," say Martinez.


This story ran in the September 2014 issue of: