Why Those with Low Vision Suffer with Eyestrain and Headaches

iI am sitting at a desktop comuter with my glasses in my hand and my forehead resting on my wrist. The posture indicates headache and eyestrain.mage of a me sitting at a desktop computer with my head bowed holding my glassesand head resting on my wrist

There can be a single cause of the eyestrain and/or headache, but often it is due to the multiple factors of visual, physical, and mental stresses. How it is different for the visually impaired is due to:

  • the use of increased magnification,
  • closer working distance, and
  • more screen movement.

It is not just that vision fails, but there arises new obstacles to adapting to the new normal.  You spend the time learning to use assistive devices and compensatory techniques to help you see better. Unfortunately, very often, eyestrain and headaches follow.   When these symptoms are associated with using the eyes, the tendency is to avoid reading and rejection of adaptive devices. This is problematic for those who are students or those hoping to continue working.

The accessibility and convenience has made computers nearly indispensable for most of us.   Long periods of time spent using these digital devices, with LED back lit screens, can result in Digital Eye Strain (DES), also known as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS).

Symptoms of Digital Eye Strain

The symptoms of DES are:

  • Sore, tired, watery, or burning  eyes,
  • Blurred or double vision,
  • Sore neck, shoulders or back,
  • Increased sensitivity to light,
  • Headache,
  • Sleepiness and/ or difficulty concentrating.

The symptoms of DES are common, not only for the normally sighted, but more so for the visually impaired.  Those with low vision  use the technology differently from others: 

  •  Increased magnification,
  • Closer working distances, and
  • More screen movement.

To the list of symptoms of DES, we can add for those with low vision:

  • Motion sickness, and
  • Feeling of eye muscle strain.

Causes of Eyestrain and Headaches

There can be a single cause of the eyestrain and/or headache, but often it is due to the multiple factors of visual, physical, and mental stresses.

Those with low vision know that everything is more difficult and takes longer. While any student or worker can attest to school or work related mental stress, it is magnified for someone dealing with the additional aspects of using adaptive techniques and assistive devices to get the same job done.  Now add in headaches and eyestrain associated with the optical and physical adaptations. The mental stress of ‘seeing’ can make it difficult to concentrate and comprehend.

Physical stress is how the body is positioned to accommodate the use of digital or assistive technology. Some of the positions are not natural.  Leaning in to view a screen at a closer distance or  hunching over an assistive device to view through the lens or screen, can result in neck and shoulder pain when used repeatedly or held over  a long period of time.  Shoulder and arm muscles can become sore or fatigued holding a magnifier or mobile device for a long period of time. Physical stress can result in headaches.

Optimize Technology to Reduce Eyestrain and Headaches

Eye strain and headaches associated with low vision and modern digital technology is multifaceted.  The causes vary by the individual, the assistive technology, and by the environment.  Here is a step wise approach;

1. Work with an eye doctor or low vision specialist to get the optimal eye glass prescription (if needed) and low vision assistive device that best suits your needs. There is a big difference between reading glasses purchased ‘over-the-counter’ (or online) and glasses that are a prescription determined by a doctor. You may select a power that is too strong or too-weak. Also, not all eyes are equal. The lenses of common store-bought glasses are both the same power. While the prescription for your eyes may differ from the left eye to right eye. If not properly corrected, this can cause eyestrain and headaches.

2.  Evaluate the most comfortable magnification level and how to achieve it. Magnifcation with some optical devices require a close working distance. You should not be hunched forward or squinting at your reading material. If you are using low vision digital devices (video magnifiers), your low vision specialist can help with the optimal selection.

3. Consider short-wavelength-blocking eyeglass lenses, computer screen filters, for eyestrain associated with digital devices. Blue blocking lenses are hi-tech  eyeglass lenses developed specifically to reduce the amount of blue light emitted from digital devises. There are software applications that cut the blue light emitted from the screens.  Examples are: Apple’s “Night Shift,” Android’s “Twilight,” or Microsoft’s Night light (Settings>System>Night light “on”.)

4. Problems with burning, dry, or watery eyes, consider a dry eye evaluation with an eye doctor. Oddly, we often get so intent on what we are reading that we forget to blink. Often, just remembering to blink can help to keep the eye moist. Another tip is to use the 20/20/20 rule when spending extended periods of time on a digital device: take a 20 second break, every 20 minutes, and look 20 feet away (this relaxes the focus).

5. Evaluate the environment lighting and glare sources. Light that is too bright or too dim can make the task even more difficult.  Poor lighting conditions can result in eye fatigue, eyestrain, and/or headaches. Shiny metals, glossy surfaces, and the screens of computer monitors are sources of reflection.  These surfaces reflect additional light back to the eye.  

6. Look at the ergonomics of your work tasks.  Head, neck, and shoulder pain means that the work area needs modification to accommodate you more comfortably.   Avoid hunching over your digital or low vision devices for long periods of time.

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