How to Avoid Computer Eye Strain and Keep Your Eyes Healthy

Photo by ginnerobot

Does eyestrain keep you from doing your work on the computer? Take preventative measures to avoid eyestrain—and get your work done. Organize a functional workspace, modulate light exposure, and keep your eyes healthy overall.

The Basics of Eye Strain

Eyestrain is a symptom that manifests when you over-exert your eyes over an extended period of time, through activities such as reading or viewing an electronically-lit screen.

Eyestrain may include one or a combination of the following:

  • Pain and tension around the eyes and/or temples (which can spread to the head, neck and back)
  • Eye dryness and/or redness
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Difficulty performing visual tasks
  • Blurred vision
  • Double vision

Eyestrain isn’t known to lead to permanent damage of the visual system, but it can keep you from doing your work. The causes of eyestrain vary for each individual, and may change for an individual over time. The three main types of causes are: inadequate workspace set-up, inefficient lighting, and lack of proper eye care. Let’s look at how to address all three to avoid eyestrain.

Modify Your Work Habits

Photo by Chloe Dietz

Eyestrain may cause you a lot of strife, through painful headaches and blurred vision. But you can fix eyestrain in a straightforward way, by modifying your work habits.

Enlarge text: Your eyes have to strain to read small text, so keep text large to give your eyes a break. When working in text editors or viewing online materials, use the keyboard shortcut to magnify text (ctrl + “+”) as needed. For those webpage text areas that tend to be too cramped — pull them over to your favorite text editor to have more space. Always magnify to a size that feels comfortable. If you have to move your head closer to the screen, squint, or don’t feel relaxed while reading — the text is still too small. And while you’re at it, make sure your screen resolution is set high.

Read offline: Intense reading on a computer monitor isn’t ideal for productivity because eventually your eyes will tire out. When you come across a long article or document, print it out (in large-enough print of course). Then read it at your own pace and in the right lighting. Another way to minimize online reading is by scanning and web surfing with purpose.

Work in spurts: Your computer is set up for virtually nonstop work — but you aren’t a machine. You need to take breaks to recharge, and so do your eyes. The 20-20 rule is easy to remember: every 20 minutes take a 20-second break. This means that you pull your eyes away from the computer and stare off into space or an object that’s approximately 20 feet away from you. If you work in an office and don’t want to look like you’re spacing out, take frequent but brief trips to the water water cooler or restroom to give your eyes a break. (If you go to restroom, don’t look directly at the fluorescent lights overhead because they will only cause more strain.)

Re-position your monitor: When you stare at your computer monitor, you naturally blink less often. So your eyes don’t get naturally lubricated as often. This leads to eye dryness and redness. To reduce this effect, position your monitor below eye-level. That way your eyes won’t have to be as open (and exposed) in order for you to see. Frequent breaks will also help out. While on break, try not to concentrate too hard on your work because this might keep you from blinking as you normally do in a relaxed state.

Relax: Work is important, but you need to be relaxed enough so that tension and stress don’t get in the way. Take frequent short breaks during the day, and longer breaks one to two times a day so that you can get your mind off work. Walks are good because give you exercise, fresh air, and help you look off into farther distances. At your desk you can do neck rolls, shoulder shrugs and arm swings to stretch out your neck and shoulders. Rub your temples to release any head tension. Give your eyes periods of darkness for rest, by closing your eyes or cupping your palms over your eyes (preferably in a quiet environment).

Pay Attention to Lighting

Photo by jemsweb

Inadequate lighting is another major cause for eyestrain. Too much lighting overexposes and irritates the eye. Too little lighting causes the eye to strain in order to see. There are several ways to adjust the lighting in your environment to find what works best for you.

Adjust monitor brightness and contrast settings: Go to your monitor settings and decrease the brightness and contrast until you find the balance that’s easiest on your eyes. You’d be surprised how bright and contrasted the default settings are. Make sure that your desktop and color scheme aren’t agitating your eyes either. Opt for neutral and darker-colored tones with minimal contrast until you find the right color balance. Additionally, pay attention to the brightness and contrast levels of different web pages and documents. If you’re having trouble reading a page of gray text on a black background, print it out instead or at least copy and paste into a new document with dark text on a white background.


Adjust other lights in the room:
Even if your monitor and desktop settings are set for optimal use, light from your surroundings can irritate your eyes. If the room is too dark, that can affect the overall brightness of the monitor. If the room is too bright, it can create a glare on your monitor. Avoid glare that goes directly into your eyes — this occurs when you’re facing an uncovered window. Avoid glare come from a light source directly behind you. Consider using an anti-glare screen if necessary. And position desk lights at an angle from behind, as lights that shine directly onto your reading surface (e.g. desk) are more harsh than light bouncing off the surface at a slight angle.


Wear sunglasses:
When you’re not in front of your computer, you can still protect your eyes from incoming light. This will help them endure longer periods in front of the monitor. Wear sunglasses outdoors (or even indoors if necessary). Make sure that the lenses have UV protection. If they don’t — they’ll have the opposite effect and tire out your eyes. (This is because the darker environment created by the tinted lenses will cause your irises to dilate and receive more light — UV light which causes discomfort, harm and fatigue.) Polarized lenses (that also have UV protection) are ideal because they minimize glare.

Keep Your Eyes Healthy

Photo by Matthew Fang

In addition to modifying your work habits and paying attention to lighting, follow these tips to keep your eyes healthy:

  • Have your eyes checked yearly.
  • If you wear corrective lenses, ask your optometrist if they’re a good fit for your degree of computer use.
  • Get enough rest, maintain a healthy diet, and stay hydrated. This will give you an overall boost so you’re not tired or susceptible to extra stress or tension.
  • Exercise your eyes when you’re not working on the computer by focusing on a close object (within 6 inches) for a few seconds and then focusing on a far-away object. This contracts and expands your lenses.
  • Give your eyes a break after work-hours. Apply chilled tea bags or cucumber slices at the end of your day. And don’t overload on more stimulation that can tire out your eyes, by watching TV or reading a small-font book without the right magnification and lighting.

Remember, your eyes weren’t designed for nonstop computer use. If you work on your computer for long hours, eyestrain is bound to occur. Don’t let eyestrain sneak up on you. Make healthy adjustments as soon as you can.

Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.