Ophthalmologists Weigh-in on Whether or Not Your Headaches are Due to Eye Problems

amsurg_physician.jpgMuscle fatigue can be incredibly painful, especially when it comes to your eyes. Too many hours in front of a computer screen, tablet, smartphone, or e-reader can cause digital eye strain and even ocular migraine headaches.

Research shows that many people spend more time on electronic devices than they do sleeping. The average person spends 8 hours and 41 minutes looking at electronics, which is 20 minutes more than an average night of sleep. No wonder we are complaining about dry eye, muscle tension, eye fatigue, and neck and back pain. These are the side effects of digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome, a group of conditions that result from prolonged exposure to high frequency light waves emitted by digital devices.

drtaylor.jpgOphthalmologists are noticing an increase in patients complaining about digital eye strain. YourSightMatters Medical Director Jeff Taylor, M.D., of The Eye Surgery Center of Paducah, in Kentucky, admits that many of his patients experience this condition. “I definitely see a lot of this computer vision syndrome with headaches, blurred vision and eyes burning in the 40-50 age groups,” said Dr. Taylor.  “It has become a big problem. Having refractive error corrected definitely will cut down on eye strain, although it will not eliminate it when a patient spends multiple hours per day using a computer or other electronic device.”

In our increasingly “portable” society, our electronics allow us to work, surf the internet, check email or read a book at any time and at any location. This constant visual exposure can lead to heightened attention and staring that slows reflex blinking and leads to dry eyes and surface irritation. David P. Rowell, M.D., of Salem Laser and Surgery Center in Salem, Oregon, said, “There is concern that all digital screens emit blue light, or high-energy visible light. Researchers are trying to determine if the blue light from our digital devices should be avoided to prevent damage to our visual system.”

rowell.jpgIf you are experiencing frequent headaches during your workday, you may be one of many Americans who spend over eight hours per day using electronics. Digital eye strain could be the source of your problem, or you could have a refractive error such as:

  • Astigmatism, in which the cornea is not properly shaped and requires you to squint in order to focus your vision
  • Hyperopia, or long-sightedness
  • Presbyopia, a condition in which the lens has become hard and inflexible with age, making it difficult to focus

A comprehensive eye exam will help determine the cause of ocular stress and tension headaches, and your ophthalmologist can test your eyes for refractive errors, focusing problems and degenerative eye diseases like glaucoma and cataracts. It is even possible to detect conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol in a comprehensive eye exam.

If you get a clean bill of health at your comprehensive eye exam but continue to have headaches, you are probably spending too many hours in front of the screens. Timothy Ehlen, M.D., of Minneapolis Eye Center, says that taking regular breaks is imperative in preventing computer vision syndrome. “Remember the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something at least 20 feet away,” said Dr. Ehlen. “This allows your eyes to rest, refocus and blink at a normal rate. When we stare at digital screens for an extended period of time, our blink rate decreases and this can cause stress-related headaches.”

drehlen.jpgCall your ophthalmologist to see if it’s time to schedule an appointment for a comprehensive eye exam. Maybe you need a slight adjustment in your prescription, or possibly it’s time to get your first pair of bifocals. It could also be that you have established some bad habits that are taking their toll on your eye health, and your ophthalmologist can assist you in making some changes. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Take at least three breaks per hour when working on electronic devices. Walk around, get a drink of water, or even close your eyes for a few moments. Your entire body needs a break, and not just your eyes.
  • Blink more often than you think is necessary. Use re-wetting drops if your eyes feel dry.
  • If you wear contact lenses, keep an extra case and bottle of solution at your desk so you can remove your contacts if your eyes feel dry. Keep a spare pair of eyeglasses at work so you can give your eyes a break on long days.
  • Try adjusting the height and slant of your computer screen to reduce glare.
  • Adjust the lighting in your office. Light that is too bright or too dim could cause eye strain and headaches.
  • When you come home from work, make a commitment to limit use of electronic devices. You’ll have more time for conversation, recreation and relaxation if you just put away your phone for a while.

If you are suffering from headaches or are seeking a qualified ophthalmologist for your eye care, please contact one of our YourSightMatters partners below, or use our Find a Physician locator tool to find a specialist in your area.

Dr. Jeff Taylor in Paducah, Ky.
Dr. David P. Rowell in Salem, Ore.
Dr. Timothy Ehlen in Golden Valley, Minn.