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Getting headaches? Here’s what you need to know about eye strain

Here are some tips on relieving your eye strain symptom from an optometrist.

A woman wearing glasses studying her computer screen
A woman wearing glasses studying her computer screen

The amount of time we’re looking at screens is increasing, with a third of Aussies spending seven or more hours each day exposed to smartphones, computers and televisions.

And, unless you’re willing to forego your weekly hit of Facebook, Netflix and health articles on The Check Up, it’s likely you’re one of the 78% of people affected by eye strain.

We spoke with Ray Chua, an optometrist from nib Eye Care and The Optical Co, to get the low down on digital eye strain – and how you can fix those pesky and painful computer headaches.

What is eye strain?

Picture this. You’re at the gym and decide to increase the weight of your bicep curls. After a few reps, your arms are getting shaky; add another few kilos and they’ll start to get sore. Most of us know our limits, but if you keep adding on more and more weight, you’ll eventually fatigue and increase the risk of injuring yourself.

Just like your arms, your eyes are made up of muscles, and when you overwork these muscles, you‘re left with eye strain.

Symptoms of eye strain

Some of the most common signs you might be experiencing eye strain include:

  • Eyes that are sore, burning or itchy

  • Overly dry or watery eyes

  • Problems with vision (blurriness, difficulty focusing)

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Headaches

  • Tenderness around the neck, shoulders or upper back

  • Trouble keeping your eyes open

What’s eye strain got to do with computer screens?

"Your smartphone, tablet and desktop screens require you to focus on objects quite close to you for increasingly extended periods of time. Because our eyes have not evolved to work at these distances for these extended durations, it puts undue strain on the muscles in the eye that perform the task of focussing for us," Ray explains.

"In addition, prolonged periods of focussing lead to a decrease in blink rate, which can lead to further eyestrain."

Eye strain treatments

The good news is that with a bit of extra TLC, you can help ease – or completely avoid – the symptoms of eye strain. Here are Ray's top tips:

1. Preparation is key

Did you know that you should be sitting an arm’s length from your computer? Or, that there are office or occupation lenses for your glasses available to help you see better in the workplace? Ray suggests chatting with your local optometrist about your specific concerns and lifestyle to get personalised tools and advice that can help you set up the ultimate ergonomic workstation.

An infographic of an ergonomic work station to minimise computer eye strain, including keeping your screen at arm's length, adjusting lighting, taking a screen break every 20 minutes, and booking online for an eye test

2. Watch your lighting

Ask any avid Instagram user and they’ll tell you that lighting is everything. It’s no different when it comes to your screen. Ray suggests adjusting your screen brightness to suit your surrounds.

“If you’re in a well-lit office, or looking at your phone outside, lighten the brightness of your screen. Similarly, if you’re watching a movie on your tablet in the evening, turn down the brightness, so it’s a darker screen.”

Ray also recommends adding an anti-reflective coating to your prescription glasses to help reduce reflection and glare from both your screen and overhead lights.

“Another tip is to avoid using screens in dark spaces and position your screens so that there are no reflections from windows or overhead lights, as this can heighten the effects of eye strain.”

3. Use the 20/20/20 rule

Every 20 minutes, take a break from your screen and focus on an object at least six metres away for at least 20 seconds.

Ray explains, “Our eyes weren’t designed to focus on computer screens all day, and your body – and brain – will appreciate a regular break. If you’re in an office, try to step away from your desk for five minutes every hour.”

4. Get tested

If you suffer from an eye condition, like short-sightedness or long-sightedness, you could be even more likely to experience eye strain, so it’s important to visit your optometrist for an eye exam. Ray recommends that you’re tested at least every two years and more regularly if you notice any problems with your vision.

Whether you use your device for work, rest or play (or all of the above), it’s important to make sure you’re being ‘screen safe’. If you’re concerned about your eye health, you can visit nib First Choice Optical network to help you to search for local optometrists; it's our community of specially selected health providers, who have promised they will deliver quality care and value for money.

1nib Eye Care Centres and the nib Eye Care website are owned and operated by The Optical Company (NSW) Pty Ltd ABN 32 153 741 970