Written by Dr. Jim Asuchak, President of the Alberta Association of Optometrists
Eye strain, headaches and fatigue at work are all too common of concerns affecting a growing number of Albertans. Recently, a patient in his late 20s came in for his annual eye exam complaining of these symptoms and how it was affecting his productivity at work. He works as a draftsman for a local home builder, which requires him to sit in front of two large computer monitors for eight to 10 hours a day.
After an extensive discussion about his symptoms and work related tasks, a comprehensive eye exam to check his eye health and visual system was performed to rule out other possible problems. Like many other Albertans, he was experiencing digital eye strain.
My patient's story is not unique. In fact, a recent survey commissioned by the Alberta Association of Optometrists revealed that more than 70 per cent of adults in Alberta experience symptoms of digital eye strain. That number rises for women (77 per cent) and millennials (83 per cent). The survey also helps to explain why these numbers are so high.
Adults in Alberta spend an average of 10.5 hours every day on digital devices, including computers, smartphones, televisions and tablets. Millennials reported spending an average of 12.5 hours a day on digital devices, with women averaging 11 hours. According to this data, it appears that people who spend more time on digital devices are more likely to experience symptoms--which makes sense when you understand what leads to digital eye strain.
Digital eye strain is caused by several factors, including exposure to blue light that is emitted by digital devices and staring at objects up close for extended periods of time. People typically blink 12 times a minute, but when they stare at a screen, they tend to only blink five times a minute, which means their eyes are not being lubricated properly. Concentrating on a screen also means extended focusing and converging of the eyes. All of this can lead to pain and discomfort as well as headaches, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, double vision, excessive tearing or dry eyes and irritation.
Many people may be experiencing symptoms, but do not realize the problems are being caused by digital eye strain. Regular visits to an optometrist ensures an early diagnosis and treatment to alleviate the discomfort. I often explain it this way: If someone has a toothache, they would go to their dentist. If they have the flu, they would visit their doctor. So, if they have dry eyes, watery eyes, double vision or eye fatigue, they should see their optometrist.
While digital eye strain is a growing concern with sometimes debilitating symptoms, it's often simple to prevent and treat. Based on a person's digital device habits, an optometrist can recommend a customized solution, which may include:
• Computer glasses and blue light-blocking lenses. An optometrist can prescribe special glasses to help reduce eye fatigue, and a coating to help block out blue light. They are especially helpful for people who spend a lot of time on a computer for work. Surprisingly, only 20 per cent of Albertans are aware computer glasses are available, and only four per cent of Albertans use blue light blocking lenses.
• The 20-20-20 rule. Only 13 per cent of surveyed Albertans follow this rule, which involves looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. This quick and simple adjustment can help relax the muscles in the eye and relieve eye strain.
• Vision training. If someone is having difficulty with accommodation or aligning the eyes, they can sometimes benefit from exercises that can be performed in the office or at home.
• An adjusted environment. It seems straight forward, but less than half of surveyed Albertans adjust their screen brightness (45 per cent), have their screen properly positioned (35 per cent), increase text size on digital devices (35 per cent) or eliminate screen glare by reducing overhead lighting (28 per cent). These are all simple changes that can make a big difference.
For my patient suffering from eye strain and headaches, adding blue light blocking lenses to his glasses was the solution that worked for him. We relieved his symptoms, and he has since returned to my office to update his spare pair of glasses. He requested the same coating and lenses and says he would recommend them to anyone suffering from digital eye strain.
It really highlights the importance of letting your optometrist know of any concerns you may be experiencing. When it comes to eye health, there is no one-size-fits-all kind of solution. While this diagnosis was straightforward, some of the symptoms of digital eye strain can be indicators of more serious eye health concerns.
That's why it's important for all Albertans to check in with their optometrist on a regular basis. The Alberta Association of Optometrists recommends that adults have an eye exam at least every two years, and annually for those over 65. Children should have at least one eye exam between the ages of two and five, and yearly after starting school. Infants should have their first eye exam between six and nine months of age.
Alberta Health covers the cost of annual eye exams for children up to age 19 and adults 65 and older. Medically necessary or urgent visits to an optometrist for situations such as an eye infection or injury, foreign object in the eye or sudden changes in vision are covered for all Albertans.
For more information or to find an optometrist in your community, visit www.optometrists.ab.ca.
Survey methodology: An online omnibus survey was conducted between April 20-21, 2017. Eight hundred and four Albertans aged 18 and over were surveyed. The estimated margin of error for the total sample is +/- 3.5%.
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