When Eileen Rohan was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., her grandmother would take her to an elevated subway platform and have her focus her eyes westward, on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. This was a citified version of what her grandmother’s father, a sheep farmer in Ireland, did to help strengthen her vision. “He would take all the young children to the top of the hill and have them gaze upon a distant farmhouse, rock or vista,” says Rohan, a 52-year-old litigation attorney in upstate New York.
It has been decades since Rohan gazed out at Lady Liberty. These days she’s more likely to be stuck in an office staring at a computer screen, which is exactly what led to the situation she found herself in recently, just two weeks into a new job. “I had overwhelming fatigue in my eyes, and my eyes felt sore,” she says. “I was getting headaches, and my vision just completely blurred.” Not only is her small monitor hard to view, but also her office is lighted by two sets of fluorescent lights, one of which is directly above her desk. This causes a condition known as “discomfort glare,” which happens when bright peripheral light from overhead fluorescents or windows makes it hard to view the computer screen.
Even health-conscious people are susceptible to computer vision problems. Judith Mizrahi, a 51-year-old holistic health and nutrition coach in Westchester, N.Y., has similar eye problems stemming from computer use, even with breaks every hour and a half. “My eyes get blurry,” she says. “I get double vision, eye headaches, and my eyes feel tired and heavy. At night it can be really hard for me to see. By the end of the day, I don’t even have the energy to read a book. I used to read a novel a week. I can’t tell you what a loss that is. It makes me want to drop off the grid.”
Talk to 100 typical computer users, and depending on who’s counting, up to 70 of them are likely to report vision-related complaints. A 2008 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior posited that if 68 percent of all Americans are using computers, then the most conservative estimate of the number of people suffering from computer vision strain is 47 million.
So is the computer at fault, are some people just more susceptible, do people’s eyes change over the years — or is the problem some combination of all three? And then the real question: Whatever is causing this spate of vision problems, is there a remedy for it?
Computer Vision Syndrome: A Modern Epidemic
James Sheedy, an optometrist known as “Dr. Ergo” (as in ergonomics) and director of optometric research at the Vision Performance Institute at Pacific University Oregon, put computer vision syndrome on the map two decades ago when he began to publish scores of studies on computers and vision. Symptoms include eyestrain and fatigue, double or blurred vision, dry or irritated eyes, and aches in the head, neck and/or back (from improper head positioning), he concluded. What distinguishes this from more generic eye complaints is that when the sufferer stops using a computer, the symptoms tend to disappear or greatly subside.
This is what’s so frustrating — and potentially dangerous — about computer vision syndrome: Just try to tell people to stop using their computers or hand-held devices. And yet because by definition the syndrome is caused by computers, there’s no other good way to make the symptoms go away. But there are ways to reduce the risk of discomfort.
Another factor that makes treating the syndrome difficult is that there are certain natural changes in the eyes between ages 45 and 60, including increased presbyopia (diminished ability to focus on near objects), dry eyes, increased susceptibility to discomfort glare (workers over 50 need about twice as much light as younger adults to work comfortably), all of which can add up to a distressing degree of eye discomfort. Some years back, Sheedy wrote an article calling for eye doctors to become better at diagnosing and treating computer vision syndrome. As a result, many optometrists have learned to check near and binocular (eye-focusing) vision, two functions you need for computer work. Bottom line: Your prescription should make viewing the computer comfortable.
According to the American Optometric Association, computer vision syndrome can be caused by a number of different factors: computer screen glare, improper positioning of the monitor, more than three hours a day of computer time, and the wrong prescription for corrective lenses. And many computer users unconsciously adapt to the problems by squinting, craning their necks forward and/or tilting their heads back to view the screen, all of which can lead to and exacerbate vision problems.