Eyestrain is a common condition that occurs when your eyes get tired from intense use, such as while driving long distances or staring at computer screens and other digital devices.

Eyestrain can be annoying. But it usually isn't serious and goes away once you rest your eyes or take other steps to reduce your eye discomfort. In some cases, signs and symptoms of eyestrain can indicate an underlying eye condition that needs treatment.

Eyestrain signs and symptoms include:

  • Sore, tired, burning or itching eyes
  • Watery or dry eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Headache
  • Sore neck, shoulders or back
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling that you cannot keep your eyes open

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if self-care steps don't relieve your eyestrain.

Common causes of eyestrain include:

  • Looking at digital device screens
  • Reading without pausing to rest your eyes
  • Driving long distances and doing other activities involving extended focus
  • Being exposed to bright light or glare
  • Straining to see in very dim light
  • Having an underlying eye problem, such as dry eyes or uncorrected vision (refractive error)
  • Being stressed or fatigued
  • Exposure to dry moving air from a fan, heating or air-conditioning system

Computer use

Extended use of computers and other digital devices is one of the most common causes of eyestrain. The American Optometric Association calls this computer vision syndrome, or digital eyestrain. People who look at screens two or more hours in a row every day are at greatest risk of this condition.

Computer use strains eyes more than reading print material because people tend to:

  • Blink less while using computers (blinking is key to moistening the eyes)
  • View digital screens at less-than-ideal distances or angles
  • Use devices that have glare or reflection
  • Use devices with poor contrast between the text and the background

In some cases, an underlying eye problem, such as eye muscle imbalance or uncorrected vision, can cause or worsen computer eyestrain.

Some other factors that can make the condition worse include:

  • Glare on your screen
  • Poor posture
  • Setup of your computer work station
  • Circulating air, such as from air conditioning or a nearby fan

Eyestrain doesn't have serious or long-term consequences, but it can be aggravating and unpleasant. It can make you tired and reduce your ability to concentrate.

If you have eye discomfort, headache or vision changes that don't improve with self-care, make an appointment with your doctor.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

  • List any symptoms you've been having and for how long.
  • List your key medical information, including any other medical conditions and any medications, vitamins and supplements you're taking.
  • Keep a daily log of the time you spend on activities that strain your eyes, such as looking at digital devices, reading and being exposed to glare.
  • List questions to ask your doctor. Creating a list of questions can help you make the most of your time with your doctor.

For eyestrain, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What is likely causing my signs and symptoms?
  • What are other possible causes?
  • Do I need any tests to confirm the diagnosis?
  • What treatment approach do you recommend?
  • What changes could I make to my work or home environment, including my computer desk, to help reduce symptoms?
  • What other self-care measures might help me?
  • Do I need to return for a follow-up appointment?
  • Do you suggest that I see a specialist?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask a number of questions, such as:

  • What are your symptoms?
  • When did you first notice these symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms changed over time?
  • How severe is your discomfort?
  • Do you use a computer? If so, how is it set up?
  • Do you work in an air-conditioned environment or does a fan or vent blow air around your face?
  • How much time do you spend on digital devices each day?
  • Does anything in particular seem to trigger your symptoms?
  • Does anything help relieve your symptoms?
  • When was your last vision exam?

Your eye doctor will ask you questions about factors that might be causing your symptoms. He or she will perform an eye exam, including testing your vision.

Generally, treatment for eyestrain consists of making changes in your daily habits or environment. Some people may need treatment for an underlying eye condition.

For some people, wearing glasses that are prescribed for specific activities, such as using a computer or reading, helps reduce eyestrain. Your doctor may suggest that you do regular eye exercises to help your eyes focus at different distances.

Consider these tips to reduce or prevent eyestrain.

  • Adjust the lighting. When watching television, it may be easier on your eyes if you keep the room softly lit.

    When reading printed materials or doing close work, try to position the light source behind you and direct the light onto your page or task. If you're reading at a desk, use a shaded light positioned in front of you. The shade will keep light from shining directly into your eyes.

  • Take breaks. When doing close work, take occasional breaks and ease muscle tension with relaxation exercises. Place your elbows on your desk, palms facing up. Let your weight fall forward and your head fall into your hands. Position your head so that your hands cover your eyes, with your fingers extended toward your forehead. Close your eyes and take a deep breath through your nose; hold it for four seconds, then exhale. Continue this deep breathing for 15 to 30 seconds. Perform this simple exercise several times a day.
  • Limit screen time. This is especially important for children, who may not make the connection between extended viewing, eyestrain and the need to rest their eyes regularly.
  • Use artificial tears. Over-the-counter artificial tears can help prevent and relieve dry eyes. Use them even when your eyes feel fine to keep them well-lubricated and prevent a recurrence of symptoms.

    Your doctor can suggest which drops might be best for you. Lubricating drops that don't contain preservatives can be used as often as you need. If the drops you're using contain preservatives, don't use them more than four times a day. Avoid eyedrops with a redness remover, as these may worsen dry eye symptoms.

  • Improve the air quality of your space. Some changes that may help prevent dry eyes include using a humidifier, adjusting the thermostat to reduce blowing air and avoiding smoke. If you smoke, consider quitting. Moving your chair to a different area may help reduce the amount of dry moving air on your eyes and face.
  • Choose the right eyewear for you. If you need glasses or contacts and work at a computer, consider investing in glasses or contact lenses designed specifically for computer work. Ask your optometrist about lens coatings and tints that might help too.

    If you drive long distances, consider wearing sunglasses with polarized lenses and UV protection.

Tips for computer work

Computer use is a common cause of eyestrain. If you work at a desk and use a computer, these self-care steps can help take some of the strain off your eyes.

  • Blink often to refresh your eyes. Many people blink less than usual when working at a computer, which can contribute to dry eyes. Blinking produces tears that moisten and refresh your eyes. Try to make it a habit to blink more often when looking at a monitor.
  • Take eye breaks. Throughout the day, give your eyes a break by looking away from your monitor. Try the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
  • Check the lighting and reduce glare. Bright lighting and too much glare can strain your eyes and make it difficult to see objects on your monitor. The worst problems are generally from sources above or behind you, including fluorescent lighting and sunlight. Consider turning off some or all of the overhead lights. If you need light for writing or reading, use an adjustable desk lamp. And close blinds or shades and avoid placing your monitor directly in front of a window or white wall. Place an anti-glare cover over the screen.
  • Adjust your monitor. Position your monitor directly in front of you about an arm's length away so that the top of the screen is at or just below eye level. It helps to have a chair you can adjust too.
  • Use a document holder. If you need to refer to print material while you work on your computer, place them on a document holder. Some holders are designed to be placed between the keyboard and monitor; others are placed to the side. Find one that works for you. The goal is to reduce how much your eyes need to readjust and how often you turn your neck and head.
  • Adjust your screen settings. Enlarge the type for easier reading. And adjust the contrast and brightness to a level that's comfortable for you.
  • Keep your screen clean. Wipe the dust from your computer screen regularly. Dust lowers contrast and contributes to glare and reflection problems.

Some eyestrain symptoms may be relieved by natural products, such as fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) and bilberry, but further study is needed. Talk with your doctor if you're considering supplements to help relieve your signs and symptoms.

Aug. 13, 2015