Blurred vision? Dry eyes? Neck and shoulder pain? These could be signs of digital eye strain. Here’s how to spot, treat and prevent this increasingly common condition

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Has our relationship with tech become toxic? Physically, mentally and socially, the effects are taking their toll and according to new stats, our dependence on digital devices is starting to have a significant impact on our sight.

Computer vision syndrome (CVS), aka digital eye strain is on the rise, with a new study by Bausch + Lomb (who developed the telescope and introduced Ray Bans to the market) revealing 60-90% of office workers who use computer screens suffer from it in some form. And why? Essentially, due to our souped-up screen time, with almost a third of us spending nine or more hours staring at a digital screen every single day.

Sound familiar? With the research showing that three quarters of us don’t know how to spot the symptoms of digital eye strain, but 80% believing digital technology is having a negative impact on their eyes, we sought the help of David Shannon, leading optometrist at WINK and former chairman of the Association of Optometrists to provide his insight and offer his expert comment on the topic.

What is computer vision syndrome?

“Computer vision syndrome, or CVS, also referred to as digital eye strain, is a condition resulting from focusing the eyes on a computer or other display device for protracted, uninterrupted periods of time,” explains David and, with the stats showing that our screen-time has increased by a staggering 42% over the past five years alone, it’s little wonder that cases of the condition are all the more prevalent. “The growth in usage of digital appliances over the last ten years means CVS affects nine out of ten people who sit at a screen at some time,” says David. He warns: “Using a digital device for more than two hours could lead to digital eye strain.”

What are its symptoms?

Ranging from head to shoulders, discomfort to all out pain, computer vision syndrome is far-reaching in its effects. David explains: “CVS ocular and musculoskeletal symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, neck and shoulder pain and eyestrain.”

“These symptoms may be caused by poor lighting, glare on a digital screen, improper viewing distances, poor seating posture, uncorrected vision problems or a combination of these factors.”

Curious to assess your CVS risk?  Take this questionnaire  to evaluate whether you’re in danger of developing digital eye strain – it’s quick and easy to fill in and provides an eye-opening and shocking insight...

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How does it affect those who wear glasses and/or contact lenses?

“Spectacle wearers who are presbyopic (who have reduced accommodation or focusing power of the eyes, generally affecting those over 45 years of age) tend to have a higher number of severe complaints,” explains David. “Bifocal spectacle wearers are particularly prone, these are often adjusted for reading a book at 40cm in a downward position rather than a digital device which can vary in position and distance depending on the type of device, such as a phone, tablet, notebook or desktop.”

Furthermore, our transition from fewer full blinks to greater ‘flick blinks’ can become particularly troublesome for those who wear contact lenses. “During screen use, your blink rate can drop by as much as five times,” cautions David. “This is a major contributor towards dry eye, whose symptoms may include burning and stinging. Contact lens wearers will be particularly affected, tending to suffer from increased lens discomfort and variable blurred vision.” Furthermore, the research showed that digital screen usage was the number one reason for contact lens drop off, affecting over a third of lens wearers.

During screen use, your blink rate can drop by as much as five times

How can it be prevented?

Thankfully with a few easy yet effective changes, we can help reduce the risk. These are David’s top tips:

1) “Make sure the lighting in the room is comfortable on the eyes, and prevents you from staring into glare on the computer screen.”

2) “Position the digital display so that your head is in a naturally comfortable position while using.”

3) “Take breaks. A few minutes away from the computer can go a long way when it comes to your eyes. Try the 20-20-20 rule, every 20 minutes look away and focus on something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Make a conscious decision to blink often.” Set an alarm on your phone, or add it as a permanent diary alert on your inbox calendar to ensure a screen break forms an essential part of your working day.

4) “Make sure your seat is comfortable. A comfortable chair with support for your neck and back will help you avoid neck and shoulder strain commonly associated with computer vision syndrome.”

5) “Have regular eye examinations, usually at least every two years, and be sure to discuss with your eye care practitioner the type of digital devices you use and any symptoms you have.”

6) “Have contact lens evaluations as directed by your eye care practitioner, at least once per year, and be sure to mention any digital devices you use, symptoms you have and how many comfortable hours of lens wear you achieve.”

Try the 20-20-20 rule

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Is there any way to reverse or treat it?

“The best treatment is prevention,” says David. “Make sure you have had a recent full eye examination and if necessary, are wearing the most appropriate spectacles or contact lenses. Before your eye examination, measure how far away the devices you use most often are and let your practitioner know.”

Investing in the right eyewear is paramount and the field’s had to develop fast to keep up with our evolving eye care needs. “As digital technology has advanced, so have spectacle lenses and contact lenses,” says David. “Spectacle lenses are available optimised for display screens, complete with anti-reflection coatings and filters to protect the eyes from the blue light that screens emit. Contact lenses have been developed that are available in a wide range of powers, including for astigmatism and presbyopia, and retain more moisture giving more hours of comfortable wear.”

One such launch that’s caught our eye is the new Bausch + Lomb Ultra lens, £42, (available from independent opticians), designed to tackle the common symptoms that excess screen time can cause. “The Bausch + Lomb Ultra lens utilises advanced MoistureSeal technology to offer a unique combination of high oxygen permeability, material softness and water content,” explains David. “An increased amount of wetting agent called polyvinyl pyrrolidone is present compared to other lenses, which locks moisture into the lens. Over a 16 hour period of wear, 95% of moisture is retained. The lens has been designed with the effects of a digital lifestyle in mind, comprising of not just increased moisture retention, but also a thin edge and a smooth surface for comfort and aspheric optics for clarity of vision.”

If not addressed, what are the short and long-term consequences of CVS?

If proper precautions are taken, the risk of permanent damage can thankfully be reduced for the most part. “Most of the visual symptoms experienced by users are temporary and will reduce after stopping computer work or use of the digital device,” says David. “However, some individuals may experience continued reduced visual abilities, such as blurred distance vision, even after stopping work at a computer.

In the long term if nothing is done to address the cause of the problem, the symptoms will continue to reoccur and perhaps worsen with future digital screen use. While no long term damage, like eye disease, will occur; digital eye strain can cause significant discomfort which can impact on performance.”

Sounds like it's about time we streamlined our screen time if you ask us.

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