Digital Eye Strain and the Causes of This Condition

digital eye strain

Digital eye strain refers to the visual disturbances and discomfort patients experience in reaction to the stresses placed on the ocular system from extended screen time on digital devices. Both internal and external symptoms may be present in patients with digital eye strain; they will often experience accommodative dysfunction, fixation disparity, irritation, dry eye, headaches, fatigue, light sensitivity, and even sleep disruption. Symptoms are often worse in patients of advanced age who already contend with presbyopia; these patients will experience additional visual stress when looking at digital devices.

Originally referred to as “computer vision syndrome” over two decades ago when it was first recognized as a legitimate health issue, this phenomenon became known as “digital eye strain” as more types of electronic devices became widely adopted into society. Since its emergence, this condition has become a clear public health issue that can be challenging to identify and treat. As physicians, we are aware that our recommendation to patients to cut back their screen time is often met with little success, even though it is the best solution to ease symptoms of this condition.

It is difficult for many to cut back on exposure to digital displays when computers and digital devices are essential tools used in the workplace. In addition, people view movies, play games, read books, shop online, and get driving directions from these devices more than ever before. It is not uncommon to spend 8+ hours daily using them. These devices have become permanently woven into the fabric of people’s daily lives in every age group. Stressing the importance of taking appropriate breaks from viewing to give eyes a rest remains critical when informing patients.




What are the causes that contribute to digital eye strain?

Various contributing factors result in digital eye strain. Many of these factors will work concurrently and further aggravate the condition.

  • Reduced blink rate is typical (up to 50%) when staring and squinting at a digital device display, resulting in dry, irritated eyes.
  • Poor seated posture, awkward positioning, and viewing from inappropriate distances for extended periods can result in muscle spasms or pain in the neck, shoulder, or back, contributing to fatigue and eye strain.
  • Poor lighting exacerbates digital eye strain as the eyes already work harder than usual to view the digital screen under normal conditions.
  • Computers and digital devices emit high-energy, short-wavelength blue light and glare, which can decrease contrast and stress the visual system, making it difficult for the eyes to focus. Blue light also disturbs the circadian rhythm by suppressing the sleep hormone melatonin, resulting in poor sleep for many patients who use their digital devices until three hours before bedtime.
  • Dealing with glare and reflections on digital screens compared to reading an actual page puts eyes under greater strain, according to the American Medical Association. The risk is greater when spending more than two hours using a digital device.
  • Uncorrected existing vision problems are a major cause of digital eye strain.

The American Medical Association (AMA) suggests that digital eye strain can be diagnosed through a comprehensive eye examination, emphasizing visual requirements for the computer or digital device working distance. In addition, patient history should be considered, ruling out any general health conditions, medications taken, or environmental factors that may be causative to the symptoms related to digital device use.

In addition, visual acuity measurements can assess the extent of any impairment. For instance, refraction can determine if corrective lenses are needed to compensate for any refractive errors (myopia, hyperopia, astigmatism). Testing how the eyes focus, move, and work in unison will help determine if the patient is suffering from digital eye strain. It is then possible to begin treatments that may include corrective lenses and vision therapy. Changing the workspace environment to provide proper lighting and position of the computer monitor, assessing chair comfort, taking rest breaks, and using an anti-glare screen filter are also recommended.

Reduction and prevention of vision problems associated with digital eye strain are achievable when the proper steps are taken to identify and implement changes necessary to correct the underlying causes. To learn more about digital eye strain, please get in touch with us to schedule a consultation.


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