10+ tips for combating Computer Vision Syndrome

Recent studies indicate that those who spend even a few hours a day working on a computer could suffer significant vision problems. Susan Harkins offers an overview of symptoms and causes and then shares some practical suggestions for reducing eyestrain.

Recent studies indicate that those who spend even a few hours a day working on a computer could suffer significant vision problems. Susan Harkins offers an overview of symptoms and causes and then shares some practical suggestions for reducing eyestrain.

If you spend two or more hours a day in front of a computer, you might suffer from Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). Symptoms include headache, inability to focus, burning or tired eyes, double or blurred vision, and neck and shoulder pain.

If you're suffering, you're not alone. A 2003 study by Delia E. Treaster, of Ohio State University, found that more than 90 percent of computer users experience eyestrain. Furthermore, the more time you spend at your computer, the worse it gets. In her 2003 study, Dr. Treaster cited a 2002 report by T. Nakazawa, which followed 25,000 computer workers for three years. This study found that workers who spent more than five hours a day in front of a computer suffered significant and severe eyestrain.

Computer screens are the culprit. Our eyes don't process screen characters as well as they do traditional print. Printed materials have well-defined edges and screen characters don't. Our eyes work hard to remain focused on screen characters and to temporarily relieve stress, our eyes drift and then strain to refocus. The constant muscle flexing causes fatigue. Keep in mind that computer screens aren't the only screens that matter -- most of your electronic toys, such as cell phones and PDAs, also cause eyestrain.

Fortunately, there are a number of simple (and mostly free) things you can do to alleviate CVS. Don't wait until you're suffering. Make these adjustments now.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Use proper lighting

Most office settings use bright, often harsh lighting. The more light the better, right? Unfortunately, that's not true, but the solution to harsh bright lights is simple. Knowing that the bright lights are hurting you is often the bigger problem.

If you have a window, use blinds or curtains to limit the amount of sunlight beaming in. Use lower intensity bulbs and tubes inside. If you have both, turn off the indoor lights and open your blinds or curtains until you're comfortable.

If you're used to working in bright light, you might feel a bit out of sorts at first. Give yourself some time to adjust to the softer lighting. If you can't control the lighting, consider wearing tinted glasses.

#2: Reduce environmental glare

Glare is reflected light that bounces off surfaces such as walls and computer screens. Often, you don't even realize you're compensating for it, so finding glare might take a bit of effort. There are a few things that you can do to reduce the glare:

  • Paint bright walls a darker color and use paint with a matte finish.
  • Install an anti-glare screen and/or a glare hood on your monitor.
  • If you wear glasses, consider applying an anti-reflective coating to the lenses.

Glare screens help only part of the problem. They cut down on glare from the computer screen. Unfortunately, they won't help your eyes focus better.

#3: Use proper computer settings

One of the simplest ways to reduce eyestrain is to adjust your monitor's brightness and contrast settings. There's no right or wrong setting. Just experiment until you're comfortable.

If the background gives off a lot of light, reduce the brightness. In addition, keep the contrast between the background and characters high. Generally speaking, your settings are probably too bright, but a setting that's too dark is just as tiring.

#4: Maximize comfort by adjusting text size and color

Adjusting the on-screen text's size and color can provide relief. First, try enlarging the text. You're probably using the smallest size you can to view more text on the screen, but that compounds the problem. Instead, enlarge the text to two to three times the smallest size you can read. Almost all software and most browsers will let you adjust text size. When possible, use black text on a white background. And avoid busy backgrounds. Sometimes, you have no control, but do so when you can.

#5: Take a break!

If you work at a computer most of the day, work in a few breaks. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that computer workers take, at a minimum, four 5-minute breaks in addition to the customary two 15-minute breaks during the day. If you don't take those two 15-minute breaks, take a five-minute break for every hour you sit at the computer. The American Optometric Association (AOA) recommends a 15-minute break for every two hours of computer use.

The AOA also suggests you follow their 20/20 rule when regular breaks just aren't possible. Every 20 minutes or so, look away from the screen and focus on something in the distance for about 20 seconds.

(Breaks can be a touchy subject in the workplace, so discuss your needs with a supervisor. Don't get yourself into trouble.)

#6: Clean your screen

The easiest tip of all is to clean your screen frequently. Dust, fingerprints, and other smears are distracting and make reading more difficult. Often, you don't even see the dust; you just look right past it. Make it a habit to wipe off your screen frequently. Every morning isn't too often and is easy to work into your routine.

#7: Position copy correctly

Glancing back and forth between a printed copy and your computer screen causes eyestrain. To ease discomfort, place the printed copy as close to your monitor as possible. In addition, use a copy stand if possible to keep the copy upright.

This is the one time you might want more light. A small desk lamp will suit your needs, but position it carefully so that it sheds light on the printed page but doesn't shine into your face or reflect off your monitor. Remember to use soft light.

#8: Position yourself correctly

Keep your distance from the monitor; most people sit too close. Position your computer monitor about 20 to 24 inches from your eyes. Your screen's center should be about 10 to 15 degrees below your eyes. This arrangement provides the best support.

If you can't change the distance between you and the monitor, adjust the text accordingly. For instance, if you're sitting farther away than you should, increase the text size. It's not the best solution, but it's better than straining to see something that's too far away.

#9: Get computer glasses

If you just can't get relief, you might need special glasses you can wear just for working at the computer. You can't pick these at your favorite discount store. You'll need a prescription from an eye doctor.

Don't depend on prescription reading glasses to negate CVS either. Reading glasses help with distances of 16 to 21 inches. In contrast, computer glasses work for distances of 18 to 28 inches. It's unlikely that the same pair of glasses will accommodate reading printed material and working at your computer.

#10: Seek alternative help

If all else fails, try something a little different, like yoga. In an Indian study of 291 people, half practiced yoga daily for an hour, five days a week, and noticed an improvement after 60 days. The other half, those not practicing yoga, saw no improvement. If your eyestrain doesn't disappear, at least you'll have fun and feel better in general.

#11: Be an advocate

Many companies provide vision care insurance. If yours doesn't and you spend most of your day in front of a computer, talk to your human resources department. Some companies pay for special glasses for those employees who spend most of their day in front of a computer. It can't hurt to check. If they don't, you might champion the cause and initiate a change in policy. To that end, I've included a number of online resources you can use to back up your request:

Don't forget about your children. They also suffer from CVS.