May is Healthy Vision Month, which makes it a perfect time to evaluate your eye health. If you sit at a desk all day staring at a computer for your job, you could be in danger of specific eye problems like computer vision syndrome (CVS) and dry eye syndrome (DES).
According to the American Optometric Association, CVS is a broad category for several vision and eye-related issues caused by using a computer for long periods of time.
Common symptoms of this syndrome include blurry vision, shoulder and neck pain, headaches, eyestrain and dry eyes, according to the website.
These problems can be caused by bad posture, incorrect distances from the computer screen, improper lighting, computer screen glare, and untreated vision issues. Some glasses and contacts may not be made properly for computer use as well.
Dry eye syndrome is also a specific eye problem that many people experience. It’s characterized by the body producing insufficient tears to moisten the eyes, or lacking good quality tears, according to the American Optometric Association.
Some symptoms of dry eyes include irritation, burning and constant watering of the eyes, as well as blurry vision and the feeling of having something stuck in the eye.
Dr. Jeffrey Anshel, an optometrist who has specialized in computer vision syndrome for over 20 years, said in an email that he helped developed the term in the early 90s.
He said that CVS can lead to discomfort and poor work performance, even if it is not considered an actual eye disease. He added that CVS and dry eye syndrome are both connected.
“If someone has dry eyes, it will get worse if they use a computer regularly,” Anshel said. “If they are borderline, they'll notice it more during their work-week. Someone can have DES without computer use ... but computer use definitely brings it out.”
Older women are more likely to have dry eye issues, which could be related to hormonal changes, he said.
Besides the physical aspect of CVS and DES, there is also an emotional aspect.
“Anything that interferes with our vision can cause mental (and physical) stress,” Anshel said. “Remember, ‘the eyes lead the body,’ so many physical afflictions related to computer use can actually be sourced as eye problems.”
Fortunately there are treatment options. He suggests the following: BLINK, BREATHE and BREAK. He has a “20/20/20” rule regarding breaks.
“Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds and look 20 feet away,” Anshel said.
A trip to an eye doctor can be beneficial to determine the cause of dry eyes as well.
Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, an ophthalmologist and founder of the Boxer Wachler Vision Institute, said in an email that dry eyes are related to CVS.
And for people with blepharitis, characterized by clogged and inflamed oil glands in the eyelids, computer use can even increase dry eye problems.
“Studies show that when people are looking at the computer for extended periods, they don’t blink as much,” Boxer Wachler said. “That causes the eyes to be less lubricated, since the eyelids work to re-coat the tear film over the eyes to prevent dryness.”
He suggests taking breaks every 30 minutes if you have CVS or DES in order to look at something far away, or to close your eyes for 15 seconds so they can rehydrate. Other solutions include taking oral flax oil capsules and using artificial tears. Testosterone cream for the eyelids and Lipiflow are other newer treatment options.
Boxer Wachler believes these conditions are major problems that cause an emotional toll and can sometimes lead to depression, since they can cause chronic discomfort.
Dr. Robert Meade, an optometrist, said in an email that many of his patients with CVS happen to be women, especially those who wear contacts. He said this could be related to hormonal problems and conditions like acne rosacea and Sjogren’s syndrome.
He suggests adjusting the computer monitor distance or height so the work environment is more ergonomic. Also, proper lighting and glare/reflection reduction can help reduce visual fatigue. Often a proper chair and desk height can help reduce certain symptoms, since that will improve posture.
Considering how much people can suffer with untreated eye conditions, and how much work it can be to fix the problem, it’s understandable if CVS and DES sufferers become emotionally impacted by their conditions.
“These people are miserable,” Meade said. “They don't look forward to going to work; they know that at some point during the day, their eyes will start bothering them.”
“Eventually this will lead to doubt concerning their ability to perform their job adequately,” he added. “There will be increased pressure and stress on these individuals.”
National Eye Institute. About Healthy Vision Month. Web. April 28, 2014.
American Optometric Association. Computer Vision Syndrome. Web. April 28, 2014.
American Optometric Association. Dry Eye. Web. April 28, 2014.
Anshel, Jeffrey. Email interview. April 22, 2014.
Wachler, Boxer. Email interview. April 22, 2014.
Meade, Robert. Email interview. April 23, 2014.
Reviewed May 1, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN