Computer era raises eyestrain complaints

08/05/2012 12:00 AM

08/05/2012 1:13 PM

In Steve Jang's job, he spends a good amount of his workday in the sunny outdoors. But the owner of a Sacramento pool service also spends hours a day at the computer screen, and it's causing his eyesight to take a dive.

"My eyes get really tired, my vision gets blurry and I sometimes get a headache," said Jang, 44. "When I'm on the computer, I have to stop every once in a while, or dim the lights. I put in eye drops, or position my computer differently."

Eye trouble associated with sitting in front of a computer is a national phenomenon, with computer users going to eye doctors with complaints of tired, dry or weepy eyes, headaches, blurry vision and eyestrain. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 90 percent of people who spend three hours or more a day in front of a computer screen have some symptoms of computer vision syndrome.

Researchers from UC Berkeley found that 10 million primary care eye exams are given annually in the United States because of computer vision problems. James Sheedy, a leading researcher on the subject, said these whopping numbers should put computer vision syndrome in the national spotlight.

"This is not a small public health issue," said Sheedy, a vision researcher at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. Individual vision problems and poor office ergonomics contribute to the rise in eyesight trouble, and as computer use duration increases, so do the symptoms, he said.

The National Eye Institute also reports that kids are being diagnosed with myopia, or nearsightedness, more often and at an earlier age because of long stints in front of the screens.

Linda Rappa, a Sacramento optometrist, said she sees 10 to 20 patients a day, and at least two or three of them are in her office for computer-related vision problems.

"People are using computers more in the workplace and for pleasure," Rappa said. "We're also seeing more people at the baby-boomer age who need more help seeing up close. They don't see well in that range anyway, and they're using the computer more."

Rappa also hears complaints of neck and shoulder pain, as computer users constantly readjust their body alignment to see the computer screen clearly.

Dr. Nilu Maboudi, an ophthalmologist with offices in Sacramento and Roseville, said she's seeing an increase in patients with computer-related eyesight problems. She explains to them that it gets worse as people age, and there's a very simple explanation for the eye fatigue.

"I tell my patients, eyes weren't made to read, we just made it up," Maboudi said. "Reading is manmade. When we read, our eyes have to move together, back and forth, and when we're young, our muscles are able to do all that work. But as we get older, our eyes get tired more easily."

Rappa said reading on a computer adds to the eye fatigue. While eyes adjust to reading images and words on white paper, the human eye isn't equipped to process pixels on a computer screen for an extended time.

"Instead of focusing on the plane of the screen, we focus beyond the plane, then have to readjust," she said. "We can't sustain focus on the screen, so the constant back-and-forth creates the strain. We're not made for this. Computers have only been around for 20 to 30 years, so we're not made for this, our systems just aren't adapted to it."

One of the most common symptoms of computer vision syndrome is dry eyes, which occurs when people fail to blink, said Rappa.

"We tend to blink three to five times less than normal when we're looking at a computer, because we're staring and fixed on our work," she said. "When we don't blink as much, we don't redistribute tears over the eye."

Rappa said computer users should seek relief from dry eye with over-the-counter artificial tears, or medicated drops. Dry eyes tend to be worse for allergy sufferers and women over 40.

"In Sacramento, dry eye is rampant because of the heat and air quality," she explained. "When people use antihistamines to battle allergens, it dries out mucous membranes."

Glasses can help for computer work, but in the computer age prescription choices have become trickier than with conventional reading of paper material, Rappa said.

Many people over 40 years of age need a prescription for reading a book or for long-distance vision, but these don't help for the arms-length range of a computer screen. Progressive lenses, those with three different areas for long, short and mid-range vision are helpful, but she recommends computer glasses, sometimes called deskwork or occupational glasses.

"Sometimes progressive lenses are not adequate because the intermediate range isn't a large enough area to find," Rappa said. "With computer glasses, you don't have to search for that sliver of area, you don't have to crane your neck, and you can sit and look comfortably at the computer."

Eye doctors can also prescribe a variety of contact lenses, including monovision, which helps one eye to see long-distance, and the other for close range, which allows for good intermediate range, she said.

Computer users can also get glare filters, move the screen to a comfortable distance, increase font sizes and dim ambient lighting, Rappa said.

Maboudi recommends taking a 20-second break every 20 minutes of computer work. She explained that a lens behind the eye's pupil bends part way when people read and flattens when they are looking far away.

"Get up, look out the window," she said. "Relax those muscles by looking far away. It puts our eyes in a flat position and relaxes them."

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