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If you work in an office, odds are that at some point in your workweek you’ve pushed yourself back from your desk, rubbed your eyes to stop them from straining, and gone on a little coffee break to get your bearings back. Turns out that coffee break might not be the optimal solution for what’s becoming a perpetual problem in today’s screen-obsessed society.

That’s because Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) is a very real, and slightly terrifying thing. One that impacts us all.

“CVS is a culmination of symptoms that cause us to not be able to use the computer as long as we would like to,” says Manitoba’s 2012 Optometrist of the Year Dr. Luke Small. “Symptoms like dryness, headaches, eyestrain, that kind of thing.”

Sure, these symptoms are usually temporary, but new research is beginning to show that there could be long-term effects, especially in children who are growing up in a world full of computer, phone and tablet screens.

So what can you do to avoid CVS? According to Dr. Small, there are a few precautions to take and key pieces of information to know.

1. Don’t Assume You Won’t Get It

Have perfect 20/20 vision, do you? That’s swell, but that doesn’t mean staring at a screen for too long won’t affect you. It’s actually quite common for people with perfect vision to suffer from CVS.

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“I often use the analogy that it’s like you’re holding dumbbells,” Dr. Small says. “Every once in a while you have to let those dumbbells down or it’s going to be pretty hard to hold that position for a long time.”

2. It’s not just computer screens you should worry about

Screens come in all shapes and sizes. And while it’s easy to see how a computer screen could affect our eyesight, tablets and phones are just as hazardous.

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“I don’t necessarily define a television screen in that category because it tends to be a little farther away,” the doctor explains. “But if you’re staring at one distance, even if it’s at arm’s length away, your eye muscles are set.”

3. Not all symptoms are immediately obvious

Some CVS symptoms, like dryness and blurred vision, are obvious. There are some other key things to look out for, some that pertain to your eyes and some that don’t.

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“There are potentially lots of other symptoms it can cause, like feeling as though your eyes are itchy or that there is a film over them,” Dr. Smalls adds. “I often get a lot of people who end up getting neckaches and back pain.”

4. Take breaks by following the 20/20/20 rule

This seems like an easy enough thing to follow: every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break by focusing your vision on something else (that doesn’t involve reading) that is 20 feet away. But in reality, taking breaks that often can often be hard to remember.

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“Put a little sticky note on your monitor that says ‘Eye breaks,'” the doc recommends. “Not everyone is going to remember every 20 minutes, but it works with the 20/20 vision that we talk about. But about every 20 minutes to half an hour, I try to have people look away from their monitor.”

5. Remember to blink

Seems easy enough, right? Maybe not. According to Dr. Small, there has been lots of research indicating that we don’t blink as often when we’re staring at a screen. That causes dryness, and in turn, CVS.

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6. Fix your air quality

OK, sure — most people have zero control of this one if they’re working in an office environment. But if you’re at home, be sure to dust, mop, lay out a mat and use humidifiers and plants as you see fit to get better air quality in your computer area.

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“When blinking decreases, your eyes are more exposed to the environment,” Dr. Smalls says. “People come in with dry, sandy, gravelly eyes and sometimes with what we call a foreign body sensation. That’s often dryness.”

Still a problem? Talk to your optometrist about using an eye lubricant.

7. Keep a healthy distance

Most office workers are fairly familiar with ergonomics and the importance of setting up a proper work space to save your spine. Eye ergonomics are equally important. According to Dr. Small, you want to ensure that your computer is at least an arms length away and that the top of the monitor is just below your line of sight. Doing so ensures that the eyelid is slightly more closed, keeping exposure to a minimum.

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8. Get the right light

This is another situation where those of us who work in cubicles won’t always have a say in the matter, but a good rule of thumb is that you never want a bright light shining directly onto your screen. That causes more strain on the eyes. And if you’re one of those lucky people who have natural light streaming in from windows, it’s best to position yourself so the screen isn’t directly in front of or behind them, which also causes difficulty for your poor eyes.

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Meanwhile, blue light, which comes from screens and has a proven effect on our sleep (who hasn’t been told it’s important to shut down an hour or two before bed?), could also be a factor in CVS. While the studies are still out, Dr. Small reveals that glasses prescriptions nowadays can incorporate a coating that helps to block that pesky blue light, potentially helping to give your eyes some much needed relief.

9. Don’t rule out the doc

At the end of the day your symptoms may seem like CVS, but they could potentially be part of a larger issue. The only way to tell is to ensure you have regular eye exams with a licensed optometrist. Don’t have one just yet? Be sure to check out the Doctors of Optometry Canada to find someone near you. Are we clear?

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