Many Workers Develop Debilitating Computer Vision Syndrome

By Beth Mirza Aug 25, 2010
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Q: Among computer users, what work-related disorder is more common than carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders?

A: Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). Fifty percent to 90 percent of workers who use a video display terminal, or computer screen, have CVS symptoms, according to research cited by the American Optometric Association. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study showed that 22 percent of video display terminal users have musculoskeletal disorders.

CVS is a combination of eye and vision problems that develop when people focus for extended periods of time on computers, hand-held digital devices or video games that are close to their eyes—arm’s length or closer, according to Dr. Nate Bonilla-Warford, an optometrist in Tampa, Fla., who specializes in the treatment of CVS.

Symptoms of CVS are eye strain and fatigue, dry eyes, headaches and neck and shoulder pain.

“Our eyes function best when we are looking into the distance, when lighting is even and uniform,” Bonilla-Warford said. “Bright lights or differences in light create glare. For many people, the combination of those things in an office environment can produce CVS.”

A third of doctors surveyed by VSP Vision Care eye doctors reported that roughly one-third of their patients suffer from CVS. But two in three eye doctors reported that 20 percent or fewer of their patients knew what CVS was.

Most people don’t realize that their problems might be related to using a computer, Bonilla-Warford said.

“It’s very common for people to adopt an odd head posture to accommodate their eye strain,” such as tilting their heads to one side or looking through only the bottom part of their bifocal glasses. “They develop neck and back problems and go to the chiropractor.”

Preventing and Treating CVS

In most cases, CVS is treatable. “For the vast majority of people without underlying vision problems, the most easily achieved treatment is to evaluate the workplace,” Bonilla-Warford said.

  • Make sure that your computer screen is 24-36 inches away from your face.
  • Keep the screen lower than eye level—“It’s more comfortable to look down than to look up,” Bonilla-Warford said.
  • Remind yourself to blink often, whether by taping a note to your computer monitor or downloading a desktop icon of an eye that blinks. When using the computer, workers blink one-third the number of times that they do at other times, Bonilla-Warford said. “Blinking is a significant component of treating CVS.”
  • Take “20-20-20” breaks: every 20 minutes, spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 feet away. A good time to notice if your distance vision is blurry is immediately after using a computer, Bonilla-Warford said. “That means your body is trying so hard to focus on the computer that it blurs your distance vision. Over time, that will cause problems.”
  • Remind children to take breaks from homework, reading and video game playing, he added. “Kids won’t complain [of eye strain or fatigue] because they want to be able to play games. But these issues start in childhood; all visual habits start then and stay with you.”

More significant problems can be diagnosed through an annual eye exam. It’s important to talk to your eye doctor about symptoms, Bonilla-Warford said, because doctors don’t evaluate patients for CVS routinely unless the patient alerts them to problems.

If the above remedies don’t help, glasses can be prescribed for CVS sufferers, because “computer use is different from anything else we do,” Bonilla-Warford said.

“As we become more tech savvy and mobile with digital devices, combined with an older population, this is going to become an even more problematic issue for individuals and companies,” he said. “It benefits any company to look at the issue and be preventative.”

For more information, see these VSP Vision Care resources:

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.

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