For desk jockeys who stare at pixels all day, blurred vision, headaches and burning eyes are an occupational hazard with a name of its own: computer-vision syndrome.
It's a fancy term for computer-related eye strain. Although the symptoms are temporary, vision problems are a growing complaint among people who are glued to computers, smartphones and tablets, says the Canadian Association of Optometrists.
Just a few hours a day of computer work is very demanding on the eyes, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Focusing the eyes at close distances for long periods may cause eye-muscle spasms and dry eyes, as well as neck, back and shoulder pain as workers contort their bodies in the attempt to see clearly.
As many as 40 per cent of baby boomers report computer-related vision problems, according to a 2009 survey by the Canadian research firm Leger Marketing.
"Most people who work in an office have some kind of [visual]discomfort," says Henry Smit, an optometrist in Truro, N.S.
Children, too, may suffer from computer-vision syndrome, notes the CCHOS. Although young eyes are better able to focus at near distances, they haven't adapted to withstand 7.5 hours a day of screen time, the average logged by kids aged 8 to 18, according to a 2010 survey by the U.S. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Optometrists report that workers under 40, even those with small prescriptions, are struggling to keep their eyes healthy in a digital world.
In recent years, a plethora of eyewear products has flooded the market with promises to fix the problem. But experts caution that not all are a sight for sore eyes.
Gunnar Optiks, a California-based manufacturer, says its line of "high- performance eyewear" are designed for "for those that live a digital lifestyle." Launched in 2008, Gunnars sell for $79 to $189 in optical shops, online and in the computer department at Best Buy.
The company's slick marketing campaign targets hard-core gamers and computer programmers using buzzwords and stylish designs. On its website, Gunnar claims the glasses' wraparound lenses "creates a preferential ocular microclimate" – in other words, they keep eyes moist – while the yellowish lens tint "takes artificial light and precisely tunes it to the physiology of the eye."
Online skeptics describe Gunnars as the "nerd equivalent of reading glasses." Others point out that knockoffs (with a green instead of yellow tint) are available for about $30 from sites such as Eyefatigue.com.
But the jury is out on whether non-prescription computer glasses are of benefit. Gunnar's wraparound design and yellow tint may help prevent dryness and increase contrast, Dr. Smit says, but he adds, "there appears to be more hype than science to the glasses."
Dr. Smit cautions against investing in expensive computer glasses without seeing an optometrist, who may detect underlying problems such as farsightedness, nearsightedness or astigmatism. Without an eye exam, he says, "you could be missing something with more serious consequences."
For patients drawn to the trendy look, prescription Gunnars are available through the company's partnership with Carl Zeiss Vision.
But as the demand for computer glasses has grown, many optometrists have come to rely on other prescription lenses launched in recent years, such as Nikon's Relaxsee, Essilor's Computer Lens and Hoya's Nulux Active 8.
Lenses like these combine a distance prescription at the top with reading power at the bottom for use at close range. Unlike bifocals, there is no visible line between the segments of the lens. This makes prescription computer glasses attractive to clients under 40 who associate bifocals with aging, says Sheldon Salaba, an optometrist in Hamilton, Ont., and spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Optometrists.
He adds that patients tend to experience less visual distortion with prescription computer glasses compared with the progressive lenses often worn by patients over 40. The reason is that computer lenses have smaller transition areas between the reading and distance portions of the lens. That said, patients with strong prescriptions may purchase both types of lenses to meet their various needs.
Before the new range of computer lenses hit the market, optometrists typically offered prescription reading glasses. But reading glasses didn't work well for workers whose jobs require that they constantly shift their gaze from the computer to interact with co-workers, "which is pretty common," Dr. Salaba says.
Optometrists used to advise workers suffering from computer-related eyestrain to give their eyes a 20-second break every 20 minutes. But the recommendation was difficult for people in high-pressure work places to follow, he adds.
Since Dr. Salaba began prescribing computer glasses three or four years ago, his patients have come back saying their symptoms of computer-vision syndrome are gone, he says. "Their eyes feel comfortable at the end of the day."
How to protect your sight:
Work is tiring enough without suffering from computer-related eye strain. Here's how to safeguard your vision on the job.
- Blink more often instead of staring at the screen.
- Use lubricating drops to keep eyes moist.
- Clean the computer screen often and eliminate reflections using a glare-reduction filter.
- Increase the font size of documents for easy reading.
- Sit 50 to 65 centimetres away from a computer monitor, with the centre 10 to 15 centimetres below the eyes.
- Have eyes tested to check for underlying vision problems and ask about prescription computer glasses.
- If possible, take a break for 20 seconds every 20 minutes and focus on something 20 feet away.