Computer vision syndrome (CVS) is a group of eye symptoms that result from prolonged viewing of computers, smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and other digital screens. CVS is also called digital eye strain (DES).
The prevalence of CVS is increasing as more people work from home and enter professions that rely heavily on computer use. Surveys indicate that approximately 60% of Americans experience signs of CVS. Other studies estimate even higher numbers, with up to 90% of digital device users having symptoms.
What are the signs and symptoms of computer vision syndrome?
People suffering from CVS may notice the following signs:
- Blurred vision.
- Eye strain.
- Tired, heavy eyes.
- Double vision.
- Dry, irritated eyes.
- Red eyes.
- Difficulty refocusing vision.
- Light sensitivity.
- Neck or shoulder aches and stiffiness.
Most symptoms of CVS are temporary and go away after a few days if you discontinue or reduce screen time. However, some of these issues can become chronic problems. Some long-term effects include:
- Chronic neck and back pain can develop from poor posture and prolonged periods of sitting.
- Migraines and other headaches can be triggered by eye strain, glare, or light flicker from the screen. Eye symptoms can appear as zigzag lights, flashes, blind spots, or temporary vision loss.
- Poor sleep can result from increased use of digital devices in the evening. Studies show that the blue light from screens can disrupt your sleep cycle by preventing the release of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that your body releases in response to darkness and helps your body know when to sleep.
Often, the best remedy is to discontinue viewing digital devices, but this isn’t always feasible. In other cases, treatment is needed to alleviate symptoms.
What causes computer vision syndrome?
Several factors contribute to CVS:
- Uncorrected vision problems such as hyperopia (farsightedness) or astigmatism (irregularly shaped eye) can contribute to eye strain.
- Glare on the screen can make it more difficult to focus and cause your eyes to feel tired.
- Screen display quality such as low resolution, poor contrast, and poor legibility can contribute to CVS.
- Poor viewing posture includes incorrect viewing distances and angles. For example, the ideal position for viewing a computer screen differs from reading a printed book. Additionally, viewing something too closely forces your eye’s muscles to work harder than they need to.
- Blue light exposure affects sleep, as mentioned above. Although some studies suggest that blue light doesn’t contribute significantly to digital eye strain, this concern warrants further research.
- Dry eyes include symptoms of irritation, tearing, redness, light sensitivity, and blurry vision. This complication occurs because you blink less often when focused on your screen.
Studies find that people who spend two hours a day viewing digital devices are at higher risk for CVS. Fortunately, you can take steps to optimize your screen viewing and minimize symptoms.
How to prevent and treat computer vision syndrome
Here are some tips to help you feel more comfortable when viewing your digital devices:
- Update your glasses. Optimizing your vision gives you the best chance of preventing visual symptoms. Your optometrist may recommend a special pair of glasses for digital devices, including coatings and tints to increase comfort and reduce glare. Keep in mind this pair may be different from glasses you use for driving or reading a book.
- Take breaks often. An excellent way to remember is to set a timer and follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, stand up and look away from your screen for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away or more. This helps your eyes relax their focus. Use this opportunity to stretch your neck and back to prevent stiffness.
- Avoid contact lenses. Contacts can dry out and irritate your eyes when looking at a screen. If you must wear contacts, your optometrist can recommend specific types to maximize vision and comfort on the computer.
- Make a conscious effort to blink. Blinking helps to keep your eyes lubricated.
- Lubricate your eyes. Artificial tears can be used throughout the day to add extra moisture to dry eyes.
- Change screen settings. Optimize screen viewing by enlarging fonts, sharpening contrast, and reducing brightness.
- Adjust your workstation. Position your screen to reduce glare from overhead lights, windows, and other sources. Use an anti-glare and blue blocking screen filter if possible. Ideally, the center of your computer screen should be about 20 degrees below eye level and 20 inches away from your face. Hold tablets and smaller devices about 16 inches away.
- Seek vision therapy. Some optometrists specialize in vision therapy, which consists of training exercises to strengthen your eyes. It’s like going to the gym, but for your eye muscles! After several sessions, many people notice more comfortable and clear vision.
If you are squinting, having trouble focusing, or have increased headaches, an optometrist can determine if you have CVS and need glasses. Even if you feel you have good vision, a minor prescription can relieve many signs of CVS.
De Leon, M. (2020). Screen Time: Disruptive, But Not Inherently Destructive. Review of Optometry.
Sheppard, A.L., & Wolffsohn, J.S. (2018). Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Ophthalmology.
Tripathy, K., et al. (2022). Computer Vision Syndrome (Digital Eye Strain). EyeWiki.