Eyestrain occurs when your eyes get tired from intense use, such as driving a car for extended periods, reading or working at a computer.

Although eyestrain can be annoying, it usually isn't serious and goes away once you rest your eyes. In some cases, signs and symptoms of eyestrain can indicate an underlying eye condition that needs treatment. Although you may not be able to change the nature of your job or all the factors that can cause eyestrain, you can take steps to reduce eyestrain.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Eyestrain signs and symptoms include:

  • Sore, tired, burning or itching eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Dry eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Headache
  • Sore neck
  • Sore back
  • Shoulder pain
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty focusing

Computer use or the use of other digital electronic devices can cause many of these symptoms.

When to see a doctor

If home treatments don't work to relieve your eyestrain symptoms, see your eye doctor. See your doctor if you have ongoing symptoms that may include:

  • Eye discomfort
  • A noticeable change in vision
  • Double vision
  • Headache

Common causes of eyestrain include:

  • Extended use of a computer or digital electronic devices
  • Reading for extended periods
  • Other activities involving extended periods of intense focus and concentration, such as driving a vehicle
  • Exposure to bright light or glare
  • Straining to see in very dim light

Using a computer for long periods is one of the most common causes of eyestrain. This type of eyestrain is called computer vision syndrome. In some cases, an underlying eye problem such as eye muscle imbalance or uncorrected vision can cause or worsen computer eyestrain.

Risk factors for eyestrain include:

  • Activities that require intensive or extended use of your eyes for tasks such as using a computer, studying printed materials or driving
  • Underlying eye problems such as an eye muscle imbalance or uncorrected vision (refractive error)
  • Stress or fatigue
  • Extremely dry air or moving air from heating and air conditioning

Eyestrain doesn't have serious or long-term consequences, but it can be disruptive and unpleasant. It can make you tired and reduce your ability to concentrate. In some cases, it may take days for all eyestrain symptoms to go away after you've taken steps to change your activities or environment or treated any underlying cause.

  • Take eye breaks. Throughout the day, give your eyes a break by forcing them to focus on something other than on your computer screen. A good rule of thumb is to follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take your eyes off your computer and look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. It's reasonable to take a break every 15 to 30 minutes for one to three minutes. Do other work, such as phone calls or filing, during this time. Try to stand up and move around at least once every hour or so. If possible, lean back and close your eyes for a few moments.
  • Blink often to refresh your eyes. Because many people blink less than normal when working at a computer, dry eyes can result from prolonged computer use. Blinking produces tears that moisten and refresh your eyes. Make a conscious effort to blink more often.
  • Consider using artificial teardrops. Over-the-counter artificial tears can help prevent and relieve dry eyes that result from prolonged sessions at the computer. Your doctor can suggest which drops might be best for you. Lubricating drops that don't contain preservatives can be used as often as you need. If the drops you're using contain preservatives, don't use them more than four times a day. Avoid eyedrops with a redness remover, as these may worsen dry eye symptoms.
  • Improve the air quality in your work space. Some changes that may help prevent dry eyes include using a humidifier, lowering the thermostat and avoiding smoke.
  • Practice relaxation. Ease muscle tension with relaxation exercises. Place your elbows on your desk, palms facing up. Let your weight fall forward and your head fall into your hands. Position your head so that your hands cover your eyes, with your fingers extended toward your forehead. Close your eyes and take a deep breath through your nose; hold it for four seconds, then exhale. Continue this deep breathing for 15 to 30 seconds. Perform this simple exercise several times a day.
  • Massage your eyelids and muscles over your brow, temple and upper cheek once or twice daily. This maneuver can be performed with your bare hands and fingers or can be done using a warm towel over closed eyes. Gently massage your upper eyelid against your brow bone for about 10 seconds. Follow by massaging your lower eyelid against the lower bone for about 10 seconds. This process can stimulate your tear glands, which may help prevent dry eyes. Massaging the muscles in the area around your eye (orbit) also helps relax those muscles, which may reduce some of the symptoms of eyestrain.
  • Get appropriate eyewear. If you wear glasses or contacts, make sure the correction is right for computer work. Most lenses are fitted for reading print and may not be optimal for computer work. Glasses or contact lenses designed specifically for computer work may be a worthwhile investment.
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