COVID pandemic has brought about unprecedented hike in the use of internet, and many a times we find themselves glued to the digital screen for online classes, ‘work from home,’ virtual meetings to unending scrolling of the social media and binge watching Netflix. The new normal has created an invisible pandemic in the form of eye strain, which is likely to affect our productivity in many ways in the days to come. In this article let us discuss the common eye symptoms associated with digital screens and the methods to manage them.
Too much of digital screen use can cause a number of symptoms related to the eyes, which are collectively called as “Digital eye syndrome”. Eye pain, headaches, burning sensation, watering, foreign body sensation, eye swelling, doubling of images, itching etc are the major complaints reported by digital screen over use. Posture related problems like neck pain, lower back ache, shoulder pain etc are also common. This may also take a toll on our mental state resulting in irritable mood, sleepiness, loss of sleep or poor quality of sleep and overall fatigue.
It is interesting to note that most of these symptoms can be addressed with a few modifications in the life style and eye care. First and foremost is the awareness of digital eye strain is a phenomenon that can hugely impact your quality of life and that it can be prevented or improved by adopting certain measures, which fall under the head: ‘Visual Hygiene’.
The foremost factor is to monitor our digital use and to put a check if we find that it qualifies more as ‘digital abuse’ rather than ‘digital use’. Your eyes are focussed for near and intermediate distances while working on the laptop/ desktop screens and smart phones. Long duration of this activity puts undue stress on the muscles of accommodation and convergence, which are basically the systems that get activated during near and intermediate distance viewing. Reducing this stress can be practiced by applying the ‘20-20-20 rule’ while you use digital screens for a long time. The 20-20-20 rule advises to change the focus to any object beyond 20 feet, for 20 seconds for every 20 minutes of digital screen use. Though it may seem difficult to remind this exercise oneself amidst a busy engaging digital work, it is not an impossible task. This can be accomplished by setting ‘20 minutes’ alarms or through the use of online free apps to remind the user to do this regularly.
Similarly, the blink rate of the user is reduced when watching the digital screen, in comparison to printed matter. Deficient blinking can interfere with smooth spreading of the tear film and can aggravate digital strain. Therefore it is imperative that ‘remembering to blink periodically’ is also an important part of digital decorum.
Any uncorrected or suboptimal corrected refractive errors can interfere with clarity of vision and the user often tends to correct the blurred images by squeezing or straining the eyes, in a bid to make the vision clear. This can lead to symptoms like headaches, double vision, eye pain etc. It is mandatory that even small refractive errors are corrected optimally for all symptomatic digital users.
Pixel characteristics of a digital screen are very different from that of print and require more accommodative effort from the user. This, along with reflected light from the screens and glare, can lead to poor visual quality. Use of antiglare spectacles is useful to reduce these.
Dryness of eyes is another significant issue faced by most of the digital users. Though there are a lot of patient related factors contributing to dryness, environmental factors like air conditioning, draft of air directly falling on the eyes etc also contribute significantly. These modifications, along with taking adequate breaks in between long sessions, can go a long way in reducing the effects of dry eye on eye strain. Even seemingly simple steps like washing the eyes with water can help in this regard. If the symptoms persist, the use of artificial tear supplements and other medications prescribed by an ophthalmologist can help to relieve the symptoms.
Use of smart phones, especially during night time, can be harmful to the retinal tissues and can interfere with the normal biological clock due to the ‘blue light’ associated with these devices. In addition to the problems associated with near work, these can add to the changes in quality of sleep and productivity. It is also advisable to reduce the illumination in the smart phones and adopting the ‘night mode’ during use at night.
Work place ergonomics is crucial in reducing eye related strain and improving productivity. Proper seating, without strain on the neck, back, hands and shoulders is important especially while working for long hours. Such adjustments which are made at workplace should be also be designed and practiced at homes where ‘work at home’ or ‘school at home’ goes on.
Along with these preventive/ corrective measures, consultation with your ophthalmologist for any eye related issues cannot be overemphasised. Sometimes, many of these symptoms may also be harbingers of serious eye disease and require prompt remedial measures. In children, these may be the first signals pointing towards a correctable cause of visual impairment like refractive errors, which have the potential for lifelong morbidity, if undetected.
To summarise, in the COVID era, over use of digital devices is an expected evil. By adopting proper precautions and corrective measures, we can reduce or eliminate the digital eye strain, which comes as a part and parcel of this process. It is a responsibility which we have to shoulder to ride smoothly through these troubled waters. Let us do it gracefully.
Dr Sanitha Sathyan
Pediatric Opthalmologist & Strabismologist
Chaithanya Eye Institute, NH Bypass, Palarivattom, Kochin