Eye Fatigue — Is It Your Computer or Something More Serious?

by Kent M. Daum, OD, MS, PhD

By the end of each day, my vision tends to get a little fuzzy, and sometimes my eyes actually ache. I’ve assumed that this is due to the many hours I spend staring at my computer screen each day — but based on what I’ve learned from this afternoon’s conversation with an eye specialist, I’ll be scheduling an appointment with my own doctor just to be sure that’s the cause.

I’d been reading research that found that you can get what’s known as computer vision syndrome (CVS), which produces symptoms like tired eyes, headaches, an uncomfortable burning sensation and blurry vision, after as few as four hours a day in front of the screen. So I placed a call to Kent M. Daum, OD, MS, PhD, a professor of optometry and vice president and dean for academic affairs at Illinois College of Optometry. He said yes, this is true — but before we discussed how to solve it, he wanted to stress the importance of being sure the problem is fatigue, not something else. Other possible causes include problems with the body’s system for moving the eyes and changing or coordinating focus… inappropriate prescription eyewear… uncorrected astigmatism… or, said Dr. Daum, “it might mean that the patient is asking the eyes to do something that they shouldn’t — like the classic example of a law student who spends 15 hours a day studying.” There are many things that can cause eye fatigue, so it is very important to get your eyes checked and have a trained clinician tell you what is really the problem.

One Glaringly Obvious Cause

After you’ve confirmed that CVS is the likely culprit, the first corrective step you can take is to evaluate the lighting in the area where you do your computer work. “You should not see any glare off your computer screen,” Dr. Daum said. Being able to see any reflection — of a window, a desk lamp or overhead lighting — means your eyes have to work harder to bring the resulting blurred image into focus, which can lead to eye strain.

Try this: To make sure your computer screen is free of glare, hold a folder or magazine above and then on each side of your monitor so that it sticks out four to five inches. The screen should look exactly the same with or without the magazine. If the screen darkens or shows a shadow or a reflection, there is glare. Fixes can include moving the light source… moving and/or re-angling the monitor to block the light (you might have to move your work station to another part of the room to accomplish this)… closing your blinds… or turning off any lights that reflect on your screen. The American Optometric Association cautions against facing an unshaded window or having one at your back while working on a computer due to the impact of glare. Along the same lines, Dr. Daum advises against using a laptop computer outdoors, as the light against the screen will strain your vision.

Keep Your Distance

I asked Dr. Daum if there is an ideal distance to sit from the computer screen. Noting that few people realize how important this is, he said the best distance typically falls somewhere between 20 and 28 inches but that a variety of factors, including height, age and vision issues, need to be considered in determining what’s most comfortable for your eyes. “People put their computers in all sorts of odd places, like on a counter or side table, where there’s not enough room to get close enough or far enough away from the screen to be comfortable,” he commented. Another helpful measure is to enlarge the text on your computer screen to a size that you don’t have to squint to see. Eyes that have to work extra hard tire more easily.

Personal Training for Your Eyes

Dr. Daum told me that you can use exercises to strengthen your eye muscles. If you have specific problems including focusing or eye movement problems, it is important to get specific advice from your doctor as to what’s best for you as exercises should be tailored to your specific problem.  When it comes to soothing and restoring tired eyes or relieving strain from the workday, however, he told me about some things that may help you feel better…

  • Look away. Lift your eyes from the computer screen at least once an hour, but preferably more often, to give them a break. Try gazing into the distance for a few minutes to reduce your focusing effort — looking outdoors can be refreshing, too, if you have a window nearby.
  • Compresses. If your eyes feel tired at the end of the day, a cold compress is wonderfully soothing. Soak a washcloth in cool water, wring it out a bit and then fold it and use it to cover your eyes while you lie down or rest your head against the back of a chair — do this for a couple of minutes and you will find it quite refreshing. Some people like to use tea bags that have been soaked (and allowed to cool to a comfortable temperature if you made tea!), then squeezed to eliminate excess liquid so none can run into your eyes. Caffeine in the tea may help shrink puffiness, and antioxidants can soothe redness… cucumber or raw potato slices work well too.


Kent M. Daum, OD, MS, PhD, is professor of optometry and vice president and dean for academic affairs at the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago. Dr. Daum is a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry.