Eye strain, tired eyes, and burning eyes
what causes it and how to get relief
These days, we’re all constantly staring at our smartphones, computer screens, or some type of digital device. After a long day it can lead to tired eyes, burning eyes, making it difficult to work and perform everyday tasks. Find out exactly what causes perceived eye strain, and what you can do to get some relief.
What is eye strain?
Eye strain is eye fatigue that mostly happens due to overexertion. After long periods of reading, working on digital screens or driving far distances without taking a break, you may experience eye strain symptoms such as:
- Eye pain
- Burning eyes
- Severely dry, or even watery eyes
- Light sensitivity
- Neck, back and shoulder aches (postural pain)
- Eye strain headaches
- Blurry vision
- Double vision
- Eye twitching
- Red and itchy eyes
What causes eye strain?
Eye strain is annoying, and it can affect your work and daily life. Luckily there are ways to reduce and limit the discomfort.
Our visual behaviour has changed
Our visual behaviour has drastically changed from what it used to be a few years ago. Studies have shown that we look at smartphones, TV screens or tablets for an average of several hours per day1, and we often do this while we’re on the move! Checking messages and mails while we’re commuting, walking or running around has become part of our daily lives.
When you use your smartphone, your gaze shifts significantly downwards.2 Your eyes also have to work a little bit harder, changing your gaze quickly and frequently to see better in the periphery (so you can still see where you’re going while you’re walking).
In addition, you’re also exposed to a different light spectrum than you’re used to. Modern digital displays emit a high amount of blue light. While the human body needs a certain amount of blue light to control the sleep and wake cycle, overexposure can be unhealthy and cause eye fatigue.
Visual strain is part of this connected lifestyle we lead, and it may be a reason why you experience discomfort or start to feel a bigger need for eye relaxation.
Digital eye strain among adults and children
According to the American Optometric Association, adults experience visual strain as a direct result of prolonged digital device use. In fact, it’s the most common cause. This vision problem is called digital eye strain, or computer vision syndrome.
Adults are not the only ones affected by digital eye strain – myopia or shortsightedness among children is increasing at an alarming rate. In urban areas in Asia, 90% of young people develop myopia before the age of 20.3
Although various lifestyle and environmental aspects are associated with myopia among children (genetics, urbanisation, lack of natural light, higher level of education), the role of digitalisation should not be underestimated. Kids are native digital users, and this can affect their visual development.
Other causes of eyestrain
- Reading without giving your eyes a break
- Bright light or glare in your place of work, or being exposed to bright light for a long time
- Working or reading in badly lit or dark areas
- Stress and a lack of sleep
- Driving long distances without stopping to take a break
- Vision problems such as refractive errors
- Chronic dry eyes
- Outdated prescription glasses
Tips for eye strain relief
In some cases, your optician or optometrist may prescribe glasses to suit your digitised and on-the-move lifestyle. Eye strain can also be a sign of an underlying eye condition or visual problem that requires a diagnosis and proper treatment. There are a few self-help tips you can try to relieve or prevent eye pain, but most importantly you should consult an eye care practitioner first to establish exactly what is causing your discomfort.
Visit your eye care practitioner regularly, and when you experience extended bouts of blurry vision or eye fatigue, it may be a sign that it’s time to make another appointment!
In addition to doing a comprehensive eye test, your practitioner will ask you a series of questions to determine how you use your eyes every day. Think carefully and give thorough answers. Remember to add specific details, for example if you work on your mini tablet more than you do on your computer, or if you drive frequently.
The more background information they have, the easier it is to give you a good lens prescription.
It’s easy to get so caught up in your work that you forget to take breaks. You can actually be more productive if you’re well-rested and you don’t have tired eyes. Try to get up from your workstation at least once every hour, and walk around or stretch your muscles for 5-10 minutes.
Just like you need physical exercise, your health can also benefit from eye exercises. The 20 20 20 rule is a great way to give your eyes a break and a little exercise at the same time. It’s as simple as looking up from your screen every 20 minutes, and focusing on something that’s 20 metres away for 20 seconds.
When you work on a computer or focus on a smartphone, you tend to blink less and only close your lids partially when you do. Blinking moistens the eyes to prevent dryness and irritation, so when you’re on one of those scheduled breaks, focus on taking long, deep blinks.
If you suffer from dry eyes, speak to your doctor or eye care practitioner about artificial tears. These are lubricating drops that help the tear film to work more effectively, so moisture doesn’t evaporate from the eyes too quickly.
Growing children with developing eyes shouldn’t use digital devices for a prolonged period of time. It’s even more important for them to take breaks and limit screen time than it is for you!
After a long day at school, make sure your child spends some time outdoors. Physical play is essential for their health and development, and it’s beneficial for their eyes. Research shows that children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to develop shortsightedness.4 When they are outside, remember that it’s important to apply sunscreen, and to wear UV protection glasses.
If your child or teenager has a demanding academic programme, speak to your eyecare professional about suitable lenses to help prevent strain.
As already mentioned, all digital devices emit some form of blue light. When the eyes are exposed to a certain intensity and spectral band of blue light, the body releases less melatonin (the sleep hormone). This means that you will be more alert and awake for longer.
Of course, sleep is essential to relieve eye strain, so avoid excessive blue light exposure before you go to bed, or wear prescription glasses with a specialised blue light coating if you enjoy reading on your phone or tablet to wind down at night.
Eyes love veggies! Eat plenty of green veggies such as broccoli, spinach and cabbage, and of course, carrots.
Hydration is also important, especially if you suffer from dry eyes. You need to stay hydrated to make sure your eyes receive the moisture they need.
End your day of healthy choices with a good night’s rest – it will help your eyes to recover from strain.
Whether you’re cranking up the heat in winter, or trying to cool down in summer, air conditioning systems can dry out the air inside your office building or home. Step outside for some fresh air every now and again, or switch off the temperature control and open a window.
In winter, you can place bowls of water in a heated room for extra moisture. Some people benefit from humidifiers, and switch these on whenever the air becomes too dry. Remember to keep drinking lots of water, even if it’s cold outside!
See what works for you, and keep doing that to maintain your good eye health.
It’s so easy to quickly flip your laptop open and answer a quick email on the sofa in front of the TV. But soon one email becomes a ten, and before you know it you’ve spent hours working in an uncomfortable position that leads to postural pain and worsens eye strain.
To get added eye protection for computer work, be mindful of where and how you work. At work or your home office, you should have a dedicated space that’s set up for your needs. If possible, connect your laptop to a bigger monitor at eye level. The general rule is to move your screen as far away from you as possible to a point where you can still see clearly. You should not need to bend your neck down.
Always sit in a comfortable chair, and adjust your height and the angle of the back and armrests so your feet are firmly on the floor and your arms rest lightly on the desk while you type. If necessary, sit on a pillow for extra height, or prop one behind your back for lumbar support.
In addition, adjust your monitor brightness, text size and colour temperature for eye comfort. Most laptops and PCs have a blue light blocking filter that you can set on a timer, giving your eyes some added protection at night. Your smartphone or tablet may also have this function, or you can download an app to manage your exposure to blue light. Even so, this will only reduce blue light exposure, and you should still try to reduce screen time or talk to your eye care practitioner about blue light blocking glasses.
How glasses can help
You may benefit from glasses that help to reduce perceived eye strain, and there are various options available. Any prescription can be adjusted to your needs.
In fact, vision technology is so advanced that there are now lenses designed specifically for a connected and on-the-move lifestyle. These lenses are designed to take your individual and age-related needs (changes in the eye’s physiology as you grow older) into account. It can be combined with your specific prescription. The result will be customised glasses, optimised for your always-online lifestyle, and you will experience less perceived eye strain.
Speak to your eye care practitioner for more information and advice.
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Eyebizz/ZEISS Studie für Digital Lenses
Dynamic gaze study – Changes in gaze behavior through digital devices. Conducted by ZEISS Vision Science Lab, a joint research lab in the Institute for Ophthalmic Research of the University of Tuebingen
Holden BA, Fricke TR, Wilson DA, Jong M, Naidoo KS, Sankaridurg P, Wong TY, Naduvilath TJ, Resnikoff S, Global Prevalence of Myopia and High Myopia and Temporal Trends from 2000 through 2050, Ophthalmology, May 2016 Volume 123, Issue 5, Pages 1036–1042.
Rose KA, Morgan IG, Ip J, Kifley A, Huynh S, Smith W, Mitchell P. Outdoor activity reduces the prevalence of myopia in children. Ophthalmology. 2008 August;115(8):1279-85.