As more and more of our lives unfold on electronic devices, maintaining a healthy lifestyle increasingly means understanding how the digital age affects the body. Eye strain, formally known as asthenopia, is a case in point.
Working on a computer all day or staring for hours at a smartphone screen can be harder on your body than you realize. Even on days when it seems like you haven’t moved a muscle, if you’re working long hours at a computer, you’re using and potentially straining muscles you might not even be aware of, like the muscles your eyes use to focus. Overdo it, and your body will show symptoms of eye strain, just like overdoing it at the gym will produce pain and muscle aches.
Taking steps to avoid eyestrain when you can is a low-lift way to significantly improve your quality of life, especially if you tend to spend significant chunks of time in front of a computer. The trouble is that recognizing symptoms of eye strain can be tricky because unlike sprains, strains, and other sports injuries, symptoms of eye strain don’t point quite as clearly to their cause.
What Causes Eye Strain?
Focusing on one thing for too long, whether it’s the road while you’re driving, a book, or a screen, can cause eye strain.
Common sources of eye strain also include:
- Electronic devices
- Being in a room that’s too dark or too bright
- Poor posture when working on a screen
- Not blinking often enough
- Looking at a screen or text too far or too close to your eyes
- Extended exposure to blue light, which comes from screens
- Looking at a screen that’s too bright or not bright enough
Eye Strain Symptoms
Eye strain is itself a symptom, not a disease or an injury, although left unaddressed it can bring negative health outcomes. When you experience eye strain symptoms, your brain is trying to tell you something, probably along the lines of: you’re staring at a screen too much, please give me a break. Unfortunately, those signals come in the form of unpleasant eye strain symptoms.
Symptoms of Eye Strain Include:
- Pain in the back and shoulders
- Blurred vision
- Dry or irritated eyes
In your body, symptoms of eye strain stem from two sources. Internally, your eye’s focusing muscles become stressed, causing blurred vision, difficulty refocusing, and pain in the neck and shoulders if you move your body into an awkward posture to compensate for not being able to see as well over time. Externally, dry eyes can cause headaches, irritation, and light sensitivity.
How to Combat Eye Strain
Aside from having an eye exam every year and limiting screen time for yourself and your kids, there are a few techniques you can use to minimize your risk for eye strain and its unpleasant symptoms.
Eye Strain Hack #1: Live by the 20-20-20 Rule
The American Optometric Association (AOA) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) both recommend being intentional about providing your eyes intermittent opportunities to relax by following the 20-20-20 rule: Stop every 20 minutes to focus on something that’s 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds.
According to a 2013 study, breaking up periods of intensive focus by stopping periodically to focus on a distant object reduces symptoms of eye strain, including dry eyes, headache, and blurred vision. Shifting your focus from your nearby computer to an object far away gives your eyes’ focusing muscles a chance to relax and recover.
Eye Strain Hack #2: Pay Attention to Your Positioning
The way you look at a screen can strain your eyes more than necessary. Try to keep your screen about arm’s length from your eyes, at or just below eye level. You can also make what you’re looking at on screen less likely to cause eye strain by enlarging the text or adjusting the brightness.
Eye Strain Hack #3: Optimize Your Lighting
Electronic devices emit high-energy, short-wavelength blue and violet light. Since damage from UV light is cumulative in the eye, protecting your eyes from potential UV damage from electronics can relieve eye strain now and pay off later.
- Block glare from your screen with blue light blocking glasses or screen covers
- Keep your light source behind you when you’re reading
- Dim the lights when you watch TV
Eye Strain Hack #4: Consider Your Air Quality
Your eye strain may be caused by your environment if it’s irritating your eyes. Polluted and dry air are particularly hard on the eyes, but you can gain an advantage by taking control of your air quality.
If your air is dry:
- Turn off the ceiling fan
- Turn down your heating or air conditioning
- Make sure you’re not working directly under a vent
- Invest in a humidifier
If you have poor air quality:
- Let your HVAC filtration system improve your air quality
- Invest in an air filter
- Keep your doors and windows closed on days with high pollen counts in the pollen forecast
Eye Strain Hack #5: Eat Apricots
Eye strain can cause further health complications if left unaddressed. When you look at something, your eyes send signals to your brain to process what you see. Overworked eyes can easily overload your brain, and an overworked mind produces the stress hormone cortisol to power through. Chronically high cortisol levels can wreak havoc on your health, with possible outcomes ranging from hair loss to type 2 diabetes.
One way to counter the cortisol related to eye strain is nutritional. Carotenoid vitamin supplements that primarily contain zeaxanthin and lutein have been shown to improve visual performance, counter the adverse physical effects of too much screen time, and improve sleep quality to boot. That’s because lutein and zeaxanthin help improve your eye health generally, while also being deposited in the adrenal glands, where they can influence the amount of cortisol being produced.
It’s not a good idea to start taking supplements without talking to your doctor first, but you don’t need to make an appointment to include these multitasking carotenoids in your diet: Apricots contain both, and make great snacks!
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