Working at a computer has some perks, like the fact that you’re probably indoors in a comfortable environment. (Unless you work in one of those offices that keeps the temperature below freezing, in which case, we feel for you.) But it also comes with drawbacks like digital eye strain.
Also known as computer vision syndrome, digital eye strain describes symptoms that happen when screentime overtaxes your eyes, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA).
The most common signs of this include, well, eyestrain (basically, feeling like your eyes are tired), headaches, blurry vision, and neck and shoulder pain, the AOA says. Dry eyes are a huge one, too. Having laser focus on your screen makes you blink about five to 10 times a minute instead of the normal rate of about 15 times a minute, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). If you’re not blinking often enough, you’re not spreading around the moisturizing tear film meant to keep your eyes lubricated and comfortable.
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to give your eyes a boost when you’re stuck in front of a computer.
1. Sit an arm’s length from your computer screen.
In a perfect world, you’d sit about 25 inches (or an arm’s length) away from your computer screen, the AAO says. Counterintuitively, being too close to your computer screen can make your eye muscles work too hard, Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an optometrist with UCLA Health, tells SELF.
You probably sit way closer than an arm’s length to your screen, especially when you’re focusing hard on something. Try to get into the habit of backing up, whether that’s by remembering to check your position as soon as your eyes start to feel tired, or even by setting regular reminders on your phone to back up until it starts to feel natural.
2. Follow the 20-20-20 rule.
This rule is pretty simple: Every 20 minutes, shift your gaze to look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds, the AAO says.
“Focusing at a short distance for a long period of time is work for your eye muscles,” Dr. Shibayama says. “It’s like lifting a stack of books—physically you can do it, but it is tiring to do it all day.” Training your eyes on something that’s farther away basically gives those muscles a break.
It’s also a good idea to blink during this time, Tatevik Movsisyan, O.D., a clinical assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF: “Take a few seconds to consciously and fully blink your eyes to produce more tears.”
3. Use artificial tears liberally.
So, as you know by now, your blink rate goes way down when you sit in front of a computer, basically priming your eyes for dryness, stinging, burning, and other ocular woes. And if you’re already prone to having dry eyes, even without all that computer time? Whew, your poor eyeballs.
Enter eye drops. “Artificial tears before and during computer use can relieve dry eye symptoms,” Dr. Movsisyan says. Artificial tears add the moisture your eyes are lacking so that it doesn’t feel like they’re gumming themselves shut every time you blink.
Be sure to avoid eye drops that promise to relieve redness, though. Those work in the short-term by constricting dilated blood vessels in your eyes that make them all bloodshot, but you can also experience a rebound effect where your eyes become even redder once the drops wear off.
4. Buy a tiny humidifier to keep on your desk.
You know how sometimes your eyes water when the air is really dry outside? Arid air can cause increased evaporation of the tear film that prevents dry eyes. If you’re dealing with digital eye strain that leads to parched eyeballs, the AAO recommends considering a small humidifier to add more moisture into your surrounding air.
5. Try to reduce your screen’s glare.
Glare can make it tougher to see things on your screen, the AOA explains, so your eyes have to work harder to process what you’re looking at. This can lead to digital eye strain.
It might be hard to completely eliminate glare coming from your computer, but you may be able to reduce it. You can try fiddling with the angle of your screen to see how much that changes the situation. (Keep in mind that having your screen above eye level will make you open your eyes wider, so they'll dry out faster—position the screen below eye level if possible.) Since overhead lights and windows tend to cause the most glare, using lower wattage bulbs or coverings like blinds may also help.
If none of that works or isn’t under your control, the AOA recommends getting an anti-glare screen covering to help decrease the amount of light your computer reflects. You can usually find them at your local office supply store or online.
6. Adjust the brightness on your screen or in the room.
If you can tweak the lighting on the screen or in the room so they better match each other, that might help. You can also try increasing the contrast on your screen so what you're viewing stands out more.
7. If you use contacts, wear your glasses sometimes.
Hey, hi, if you wear contacts and work at a computer all day, your eyes wanted us to pass you a message: Give them a break, please.
Contacts can make the dryness and irritation that often come with computer use even worse, the AAO explains. These tiny lenses disrupt how much oxygen your eyes receive for nourishment, so they can cause scratchiness and other symptoms over time even if they feel like a dream upon insertion. Consider swapping out your contacts in favor of your glasses here and there so your eyes can breathe a bit.
If you implement all of these tips and your eyes are still tapped out at the end of the day, it’s time to see your eye doctor.
They can investigate and potentially suggest more intensive modes of treatment, like using special contact lenses that aim to retain as much moisture as possible. Bottom line: Even though your brain might be tired after a day working at a computer, your eyes don’t have to be.