If you work in an office there’s a good chance you’ll spend around eight hours a day staring at a screen. Even if you are retired you’ll probably use a computer or tablet for a few hours every day. While it’s great to have so much information at our fingertips, excessive screen time is not good for our eyes.
Doctors and nurses at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London are finding more and more people are visiting the hospital with symptoms such as dry eyes and swelling which are being caused by long periods at a computer screen.
Daniel Ezra, consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields, told the Evening Standard in 2016 that some people carry on going to work even though their eyes are uncomfortable. Others are affected so badly that they can't do their work.
“I’ve got lots of patients who come in and say they can’t do their job properly because the dryness and discomfort has worsened to the degree that their vision has deteriorated,” he said.
“I think it’s probably the tip of an iceberg and there’s a huge epidemic of this problem.”
A 2014 study of office workers in Japan found that those who used visual display units (VDUs) for prolonged periods had increased frequency of eye strain and a low concentration of MUC5AC in their tears - MUC5AC is a gel mucus layer that contains protein and keeps the eye moist.
“If you look at how people used to work before the advent of computers, work patterns were more varied as they would read, write and move around,” said Dr Ezra.
Using a computer requires a lot of effort from your eye muscles. When you are reading a book your eyes move around a page, but when working at a computer your eyes move around a lot more. Your eyes also have to handle brightness and glare from the screen.
Air conditioning, which is found in many offices, makes conditions worse by drying out eyes.
Eye conditions caused by screen use
Eye problems caused by screen use are collectively called ‘Computer vision syndrome’. Symptoms include blurred vision, double vision, eye irritation, neck and shoulder pain and headaches.
Another condition is ‘Dry eye syndrome’, where the eye doesn’t produce enough tears, causing it to get swollen and red and feel irritated.
Dr Ezra estimates that 15% of Londoners could suffer from ‘Blepharitis’, which is when the eyelids become inflamed, leading them to become sore, itchy, swollen and often stick together.
Read more about eye conditions in our article: Eye health: Your questions answered
According to Dr Ezra, eye strain won’t usually cause long-lasting damage, but can be incredibly uncomfortable and impact on day-to-day life. “While most cases settle with appropriate lubrication, some will need anti-inflammatory agents or a procedure to plug the natural tear drainage channels to increase the tear film volume.” he said
15 eye-saving tips for computer users
1. Take regular screen breaks. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says short 5-10 minute breaks after every 50-60 minutes’ screen use are more effective than longer breaks after longer periods.
2. Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes focus on something else in the room 20ft away for a minimum of 20 seconds.
3. Don’t forget to blink. Blinking helps lubricate the eye, but concentrating for long periods at a time reduces the number of times you blink, drying out the eye. This is often exacerbated by air conditioning.
4. Keep your screen clean.
5. Rest your eyes for periods during the day. For example, don’t stare at the screen when you are thinking; focus on other objects or close your eyes.
6. Reduce glare on the screen by shutting curtains and turning off lights. Consider an anti-glare screen around your monitor.
7. Bright light can cause eye strain, so avoid lights directly behind your screen that will reflect off the display. If light from a window is reflecting off your display, use blinds.
8. Make sure your monitor is 18-24 inches away and positioned slightly below eye level, so you aren’t looking up at your screen. Check out our article: Is your monitor set up correctly?
9. Tweak your monitor settings - you may still be using default factory settings which could be too bright. If you use a Windows computer click the Start Menu and search for ‘Adjust screen brightness’ to adjust the settings.
10. If your monitor is old, consider upgrading it. LCD monitors flicker less than CRTs.
11. Change text size. If you are struggling to read characters, make text size bigger.
12. If you need glasses, wear them.
13. Get regular eye tests and let your optician know you use a computer regularly. Employers are legally obliged to give free eye tests to workers who use VDUs regularly, so take advantage of them.
14. Use artificial tears to help keep your eyes moist.
15. Give your eyes a break and avoid looking at phones or tablet screens for a couple of evenings each week - a few days break will really help. And make sure you get a good night’s sleep.