14 Steps to Avoid Computer Eye Strain
I have been trying for days to write about eye care for writers, but it hasn’t been easy, and for one simple reason: My eyes are banjaxed.
The clinical term is ‘computer eye strain’ but I think banjaxed says it best. And without wishing to put too fine a point on it, your own eyes are at risk of going the same way unless you blink now and continue to blink as you read the rest of the bad news, to wit: Computer screens can wreak havoc on the eyes unless you’re careful. Very, very careful.
Whether it’s a desktop, laptop or mobile phone, like most writers I spend a minimum of eight hours a day staring into one type of screen or another – longer if up against a deadline. But the problem is our eyes are not designed to stare down our noses for long periods of time. They’re designed for hunting, gathering and peering into the distance, preferably at objects 20 feet or more away. When looking at something up close, such as a computer screen or a book, the eyes turn inward and the pupils constrict, which puts an unnatural strain on the eye muscles and cranial nerves.
The most common physical complaints from prolonged computer use are headaches and sore, tired eyes. More severe symptoms include an itchy scratchy sensation, excessively watery or dry eyes, blurred vision, twitching, focussing fatigue and sensitivity to light. I have the full the kit and caboodle and although it’s debilitating, particularly when accompanied by lethargy, there are no lasting affects once treated.
As always, your best defence is prevention. Below are 14 steps you can take to reduce the risk of eye strain and minimise any discomfort you may already be experiencing.
1. Eye exam
The most important thing you can do is to have a comprehensive eye exam at least once a year. Make sure you tell your optician how many hours a week you spend working on a computer, watching TV or fiddling with a mobile phone.
To help keep your eyes comfortable and your vision optimal, a thin film of tears coats the eyes. When working on computers people blink less – about five times less than normal – thus reducing the natural lubrication and allowing for excessive evaporation of tears, which can result in eyes that feel heavy and irritated. To reduce the risk of this happening and to increase natural lubrication, try this exercise: Every 20 minutes, blink 10 times by closing your eyes slowly as if falling asleep and then slowly opening them again.
3. Take frequent breaks
The only downside to the above exercise is that if you’re already feeling tired, it might encourage you to nod off. As an alternative, for every hour spent on a computer, take a five-minute break, get up and walk around. Stretch your arms, legs, back, neck and shoulders to reduce tension and muscle fatigue. Give your eyes a treat by including a few minutes staring out of a window and focussing on something in the distance.
4. Eye Exercises
If you can’t take regularly breaks, then look away from your computer at least every 20 minutes and gaze at the furthest object you can see in the room for 20 seconds or so. Looking away relaxes the focussing muscle inside the eye and reduces fatigue. Another, better, exercise is to look out of a window at a far away object (preferably 20 feet away) for about 20 seconds. Then gaze at something close up for another 20 seconds before looking back at the distant object. Do this 10 times. Not only will this latter exercise reduce the risk of eye strain, it will make your eyes stronger.
Poor alignment of the head, neck, shoulder and back causes stress and pain which affects every part of your body from head to toe. Aside from causing other lasting health problems, poor posture is a major contributor to eye strain. Avoid slouching by adjusting your desk and chair to the correct height. You should be able to reach the keyboard and mouse whilst bending your elbows at 90 degrees with shoulders relaxed. Your back should be straight and the top of the screen should be at eye level or a fraction below. The backrest on your chair should fit the natural curve of your lower back. Your feet should be planted firmly on the floor or placed comfortably on a footrest.
Eye strain is often caused by working in excessively bright light, whether from sunlight coming through a window or from harsh interior lighting. When you use a computer, your ambient lighting should be about half as bright as that typically found in most offices. Eliminate exterior light by closing curtains, shades or blinds. Reduce interior lighting by using fewer light bulbs or fluorescent tubes, or use lower intensity bulbs and tubes. At a minimum, make sure you position your desk lamp so it doesn’t shine on your computer screen or into your eyes.
7. Minimise Glare
Glare on walls and finished surfaces, as well as reflections on your computer screen can also cause problems. Consider installing an anti-glare screen and, if possible, painting bright white walls a darker colour with a matte finish. Dust on the monitor may also contribute to glare and reflection problems.
8. Modify your work area
If you need to look back and forth between a printed page and a computer screen, this too can cause eye strain. Place written pages on a copy stand adjacent to the screen. LIght the copy stand properly ensuring the light source doesn’t bounce off the screen and onto your eyes.
9. Position of screen
Your screen should at least an arm’s length away. Make sure the top of the screen is at eye level or just below so you are not straining to look up or down. If possible, position the screen so that windows, even where shaded, are to the side instead of in front or behind it. If your screen is to the left or right of your keyboard, you are forcing your eyes to work harder to maintain focus.
10. Upgrade your screen
If your screen has a diagonal size of less than 19 inches, replace it with a bigger one if you can.
11. Adjust brightness and contrast
Adjust the screen’s display settings on your computer so the brightness of the screen is about the same as your work environment. Black text on white background is the best colour combination. However, if a white screen looks like a light source, then it’s too bright. If it seems dull and grey then it may be too dark. Also, make sure the text size is optimised for comfort. Ideally, this should be three times the smallest text size you can read from your normal viewing position.
12. Artificial tears
If you’re having trouble with persistent dry eyes, ask your optician or GP about artificial tears or check what’s on offer in your local pharmacy. A word of warning though. Don’t confuse lubricating drops with drops formulated to get the red out. These will certainly make your eyes look better as they contain ingredients that reduce the size of blood vessels on the surface of your eyes to “whiten” them but they are not necessarily formulated to rehydrate. In fact, my experience is that they can do the opposite and irritate your eyes further.
There are two basic kinds of artificial tears. Preservative bottled drops and preservative-free drops that generally come in single dose vials. Again, check with your optician or GP about which type is best for you but most people are told to use the latter as they significantly reduce the chances of introducing infections such as Blepharitis. Moreover, although single-dose vials are more expensive, they have a longer shelf life
If you wear glasses, consider purchasing lenses with an anti-reflective (AR) coating. This coating reduces glare by minimising the amount of light reflecting off the front and back surfaces of your eyeglass lenses. This is especially true if you normally wear contact lenses, which may become uncomfortable during sustained computer work. Even if you don’t need vision assistance, AR coated non-focal lenses will go a long way to protecting your eyes.
14. When to seek medical care
People with a long term dry eye condition rarely feel that their eyes are actually ‘dry’. Instead they feel like they’re burning and full of grit. In severe cases blinking may also be painful and a mucus discharge may be present. If left untreated there is an increased risk of infection. If you follow even a quarter of the above steps and still experience ongoing discomfort, I’d suggest seeking medical advice as soon as possible.
What about you? Have you any tips to add to the above? If so, I’d love to hear them!
For more about Caren, please visit: www.carenkennedywrites.com
CAREN KENNEDY runs writing.ie's Word Play blog and is the creator of a television series currently in pre-production with Warner Bros TV and co-author of Fake Alibis (BenBella Books, 2009). As well as being a regular contributor to Journal.ie, publishing credits include local, national and international publications. In conjunction with The Inkwell Group, Caren also gives one-to-one mentoring on how to begin writing for television in her online course: http://www.inkwellwriters.ie/workshops/writing-tv-treatments. She is represented in the US by Vamnation Entertainment and TriadaUS Literary Agency.