Ask an Optometrist: Can Certain Lenses Prevent Eye Strain?

If your job or daily routine is closely tied to screens, these tips and strategies can help your eyes feel fresh from morning to night.

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Raise your hand if you feel constantly connected to some kind of digital screen. These days, you don’t need to work a desk job or be a social media influencer to feel tethered to your devices: 85% of Americans are plugged in daily, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2021. That figure includes 31% of adults who say they are online “almost constantly” and 48% who say they’re online “several times a day.”

One side effect of our plugged-in world? Digital eye strain, also known as computer vision syndrome. Chances are you know the most common symptom described by the American Optometric Association: eyes that feel dry and irritated after long stints of looking at a screen. On those super long days of screen time, you may also experience headaches, blurred vision, and even neck and shoulder pain.

Seeking relief, some people are curious about how different eyewear choices — specifically lenses — might help. Here, optometrist Anne Bui, O.D., whose practice is located within America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Hesperia, California, untangles the causes and symptoms of digital eye strain, as well as the options for relief.

Has it been a while since your last eye checkup? Now’s the time to book an appointment!

Why do my eyes hurt after looking at a screen?

Contrary to popular myth, it’s not necessarily the blue light from the computer screen that’s irritating your eyes, Dr. Bui says.

“The fact that we don’t blink very often when we stare at a screen is the problem,” she says.

“Studies have shown that for computer users, blinking rate decreases significantly, which leads to computer vision syndrome,” Dr. Bui continues. “There’s something about being on our devices that just causes us to stare, and quite often we forget to blink.”

Recommended reading: Do I Have Digital Eye Strain? Take Our Quiz and Find Out.

Why is blinking so important?

You may be surprised to learn that the act of blinking is hugely important to eye health. Every time you blink, a layer of tears spreads across your eyes. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), those tears consist of three layers:

  • An oily layer, which keeps the tears from evaporating too quickly
  • A watery later, which cleans the eye of foreign particles
  • A mucus layer, which helps the water stick to the eye

Some research has found that people blink between 12 and 18 times per minute, according to a study published in Clinical Optometry. But that number goes down when we stare at something intently — such as a screen (or even the pages of a book).

For example, one study found that people who blinked an average of 15.5 times per minute began to blink only six times per minute when they read on a tablet. The findings were published in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.

That same study also found that people tend to take more “incomplete” blinks when they stare at a screen. Those incomplete blinks can take a toll, suggests research published in 2019 in The Ocular Surface. That means your eyes miss out on the thorough moisturizing that occurs with complete blinks.

Does that mean I don’t need to worry about the blue light that comes from digital screens?

Not necessarily. According to the AAO, the science around the effects of blue light on your eyes is still emerging. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is evidence to suggest that blue light can hinder your ability to fall asleep. And the Sleep Foundation adds that it can interfere with your natural circadian rhythms. The AAO recommends not using any kind of digital device for two to three hours before you go to sleep.

Recommended reading: 4 Questions About Blue Light and Your Eyes, Answered!

Would blue light–blocking glasses help?

They’re not your only defense against eye fatigue that can lead to eye strain — digital-related or otherwise — but they are a good choice for some patients, Dr. Buiu says. Anti-reflective lenses are another lens option she suggests discussing with your eye doctor.

Here’s what you should know about both:

Blue light–blocking lenses: These filter out the blue light emitted by computers, phones, and tablet screens. They may be a good choice if you frequently need to use your tech devices in the evening hours and are having trouble sleeping. So far, the evidence showing that blue light–blocking lenses can help prevent or ease digital eye strain is mixed. Currently, the AAO does not recommend special eyewear for computer use.

Anti-reflective lenses: As the name implies, these lenses have a coating that cuts down the glare that can be reflected into your eyes from any light source — screens, headlights, bright sunshine, even the rays that break through on a cloudy day. Less glare means your eyes don’t have to work as hard to see well.

Dr. Bui says that most people can benefit from anti-reflective lenses. “If you want to give blue light–blocking lenses a try — either while you’re at your desk or before you fall asleep at night — they certainly won’t hurt your eyes,” Dr. Bui says. “There’s just no guarantee they’ll help.”

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What will help with eye strain?

Getting your eyes checked!

“Wearing the correct eyeglasses or contact lens prescription is the most important thing you can do to prevent eye strain and protect your overall eye health,” says Dr. Bui.

“Uncorrected vision or wearing the wrong prescription only makes the time you spend at the computer or on your smartphone more difficult,” she continues. “It can further contribute to eye strain.”

Some people, she adds, may also need a different prescription that’s specifically for the computer. Computer glasses, for example, are a type of eyeglasses that correct for focusing on a screen that’s positioned about 20 to 26 inches from your face, according to the AAO.

The eye care specialists at America’s Best can help you find lenses that are just right for you! Learn more here.

What else can I do to get relief from digital eye strain?

Dr. Bui recommends the following.

Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look at something that’s 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds. “By giving yourself a break from the screen, it will help increase blinking frequency, along with reducing eye strain,” she says.

Reposition your computer screen. To avoid symptoms like neck and shoulder pain, position your computer so that it’s arm’s length away from your face. You should be gazing down at the screen slightly. That way, you won’t have to contort your head and neck every time you look at the screen.

Adjust the brightness of your screen. If your screen is brighter or dimmer than the lighting in the room, your eyes have to work harder to see it, according to the AAO. Always adjust the brightness to a level that’s similar to that of your environment.

There are also screen filters that can help cut down on the glare. And in the evenings, you can switch your phone or tablet to dark mode or night mode.

Use artificial tears. These eye drops contain a tear-like substance that can help keep your eyes lubricated and ward off dry eye. Systane Complete Lubricant Eye Drops and Refresh Tears are two good options, Dr. Bui says.

Have regular power-down periods. In addition to adopting the above steps, it’s important to step completely away from your computer and other digital devices at various times throughout the day — and particularly in the hours before you go to bed.  

Press play for helpful tips to give your eyes a break: