- With CVS, you might experience headaches, light sensitivity, vision problems, and sore or tired eyes.
- Your eyes work harder when looking at screens, and things like glare and low light don’t help.
- If your symptoms aren’t improving with frequent screen breaks, it might be time to see an eye doctor.
With remote work and schooling at record highs, Americans are spending more time than ever on digital screens — on average, 17 hours a day.
All that digital time is hard on the eyes, especially because it can increase your risk of developing a condition called computer vision syndrome (CVS), also known as digital eye strain.
The good news is that CVS is temporary and you can take steps to reverse it. Here’s how to identify the signs of eye strain, reduce your risk, and manage the symptoms.
Signs and symptoms
Some of the most common signs of CVS include:
- Eye fatigue or pain
- Eye redness, dryness, burning and itching
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Blurred vision
- Intermittent double vision
- Eyes that feel heavy, like you can’t keep them open
These symptoms usually only last a few hours and improve shortly after a break from digital screens, according to Dr. Dagny Zhu, board-certified ophthalmologist and owner of Hyperspeed LASIK.
However, Dr. Luis Rojas, optometrist at DeNovo Eye and consultant at Johnson & Johnson Vision, says symptoms may linger longer if you already have an underlying eye condition, such as astigmatism or eye muscle imbalance. .
Why does this happen?
Your eyes have to work harder to focus when looking at a digital screen. Text isn’t as crisp as words printed on a page, Zhu says. Additionally, digital screens often emit reflections, which makes it even harder for your eyes to focus.
Plus, while you typically blink about 15 times per minute, you’ll only blink half as often when focusing on a digital screen, Rojas says. Blinking helps keep your eyes moist. So when you blink less, your eyes can become dry and your vision blurry, which can contribute to eye strain.
Because of these factors, you’re more prone to CVS if you don’t take enough screen breaks, according to Dr. Dora Adamopoulos, optometrist at Eye2Eye Optometry Corner and medical advisor for The Vision Council.
High screen brightness and looking at screens too closely increase your risk of CVS, according to a 2020 study of undergraduate medical students.
Screens that are too bright expose your eyes to more blue light, which can cause eye strain. Also, when you look at the screens up close, you don’t blink as much, says Rojas. This puts more strain on the ciliary muscle of the eye, which remains contracted without any rest.
Other factors that can contribute to CVS, according to Rojas:
- Poor lighting, causing you to squint or strain to see
- Reading on devices with low contrast between text and background
- A dry indoor environment
Who is most likely to experience it?
CVS affects no less than 90% of computer users who spend more than 3 hours a day in front of their desktop or laptop screen. However, it can also affect people who spend a lot of time using any electronic device, Zhu said.
Wearing contact lenses can also increase your risk. Zhu says contact lenses often contribute to dry eyes, which can exacerbate CVS.
Glasses, however, can help reduce airflow to the surface of your eyes and prevent moisture loss.
Zhu also says that CVS may be more likely to develop after menopause, due to hormonal changes that cause dry eyes.
Other risk factors for CVS include:
How to handle it
One of the best ways to avoid digital eye strain, according to optometrists, is to follow the 20/20/20 rule. “It gives the eyes a chance to recalibrate before focusing on the digital screen again,” says Brujic.
A 2020 study found that this method doesn’t just reduce your risk of developing CVS. It can also decrease the severity of symptoms.
Some other tips to reduce your risk of CVS and manage existing symptoms:
- Keep your devices at arm’s length and slightly below eye level (4-8 inches).
- Use a humidifier in the same room to keep eyes moist.
- Try to blink more often.
- Avoid direct or overhead light on screens. You can do a quick test by turning off your screen and checking to see if you notice any light from windows or lamps reflecting off your screen. If so, move your screen to minimize this reflected light.
- Adapt the screen brightness to the brightness level of your environment.
- Increase the contrast on your screen and make the font bigger.
- Regularly remove dust from your screen, as it can affect clarity and make reflections worse.
Use lubricating eye drops as needed. Opt for preservative-free eye drops, especially if you use them more than four times a day.
It’s also wise to take a proactive approach: Schedule annual eye exams to keep your glasses or contact lens prescription up to date and ensure you don’t have any untreated eye problems, says Dr. Kristyna Lensky Sipes, optometrist at Stanford Ranch Optometry. .
When to contact an ophthalmologist
Making a few tweaks — like reducing screen time, taking regular breaks from devices, and changing the brightness and distance of your screens — should help alleviate CVS.
If you see no improvement in your symptoms, Brujic recommends contacting an eye doctor.
You should also schedule an eye exam if you experience:
- Symptoms that interfere with your ability to work or function
- Blurry or double vision that doesn’t go away when you stop using your devices
- Sudden changes in vision
- Symptoms like eye pain, redness, or dryness that don’t get better or worse
Ophthalmologists can assess eye health and vision, make a diagnosis, and provide personalized advice on how to reduce eye strain and other symptoms. They can also determine if you need to treat an underlying vision problem contributing to CVS.
In some cases, Sipes says your eye doctor may prescribe special tinted glasses for computer use that can help reduce glare and increase contrast for easier reading.
Other treatment options may include medicated eye drops if over-the-counter ones aren’t effective, or a vision therapy program to help your eyes work more efficiently when using devices.
Computer vision syndrome, or digital eye strain, is an umbrella term for eye problems caused by using digital devices, especially for long periods of time.
Although CVS does not appear to cause permanent eye damage, symptoms such as eye fatigue and dryness can cause discomfort and make it more difficult to use devices for work or play.
Taking frequent breaks from your screens can help prevent CVS and treat symptoms. It can also help reduce screen glare and brightness, keep your eyes moist, and adjust screen angle and text size.
If these measures don’t help, a good next step is to schedule an appointment with your eye doctor.