Eye Fatigue: How to Spot It, Treat It & Beat It

Our digital lives make us more vulnerable than ever to eyestrain. Protect your eyes with a few quick tricks.

Woman working on laptop, resting her eyes.

Cynthia Collins was 18 when she started noticing vision problems. She would get headaches after just a half hour of reading. And despite having 20/20 vision, she struggled to read the scoreboard from across her high school gym.

Turned out, she had something called accommodative spasm, a condition linked to eyestrain and fatigue.

"The problem was my eye muscles were overly tense and straining," she says.

Her eyes would become so focused on near work that when she looked up, her vision, slow to adjust, would be blurry. Now, more than a decade later, she still wears prescription bifocals to help her eyes relax during near tasks.

The experience taught her the importance of eye health and led her to become an optometrist. She now passes that lesson on to her patients at the America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Many of them also suffer from eye fatigue, a broad term for any type of eyestrain that occurs when your eyes tire from intense use.

"Eye fatigue can happen when we focus intently on anything for a long time, particularly tasks at finger's length or closer," says Dr. Collins. "I see it very commonly in people who spend a lot of time on screens or doing up-close work."

Symptoms—like headaches, blurred vision, fatigue, dry or watery eyes, even neck pain—are usually temporary. But in severe cases, eye-muscle problems (such as accommodative spasm) can occur, says Dr. Collins.

Luckily, you can manage or even prevent eye fatigue with a few simple strategies.

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

Strategy #1: Adjust the Ambient Light

Exposure to bright light or glare can be harsh on the eyes, so adjust the ambient light accordingly.

When watching television, keep the room softly lit. And when working on a computer, flip off those bright overheads and try an adjustable desk lamp instead, the eye experts at the Mayo Clinic recommend.

Conversely, straining to see in dim light is bad, too. So turn up the lighting when viewing printed materials—just position the source behind you so it's not shining in your eyes.

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Strategy #2: Push Your Phone Away

Staring at anything close-up strains the eyes, and with the rise of smartphones we're staring at tinier print closer than ever—as close as 7 inches, according to a report in Optometry and Vision Science, an official publication of the American Academy of Optometry.

"You'll see kids holding phones right up to their faces," Dr. Collins says. "That's not necessary. That's an overstimulation."

Aim to keep your phone 16 inches away (about half an arm's length for adults) and encourage the same habit in your kids. "The focusing muscles aren't working as hard at that distance," she says.

Strategy #3: Follow the 20-20-20 Rule

Recommended by both the American Optometric Association (AOA) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), the rule states that during prolonged screen use, you should look at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes.

"By looking for 20 seconds, you give your eyes time to adjust to the point where distance vision is clear," she says.

To remind yourself to give your eyes a break, try setting a timer or using an app, such as Eyecare 20 20 20 (for iOS and Android).

Strategy #4: Tweak Your Office Ergonomics

Optimizing your workstation for comfort is good not just for your spine but for your eyes, too. Your monitor should be 20 to 28 inches from your eyes and about 4 or 5 inches below eye level, the AOA recommends.

This setup reduces the accommodative demand on the eye muscles, says Dr. Collins. Plus, it's easier for those who wear progressive or bifocal lenses.

Strategy #5: Force Yourself to Cry

When we perform close tasks, we tend to blink less, says Dr. Collins says.

"We usually blink about 15 times a minute, but when we stare at devices, we blink four times a minute," she says. "Blinking less can cause our eyes to become dry, an additional form of stress that is related to eye fatigue."

Try squeezing your eyes shut and then open them wide, Dr. Collins recommends. You'll help stimulate tear production.

You can also relax the eye muscles simply by sitting back and closing your eyes for a moment, she says. Try tacking these exercises on to the end of your 20-20-20 routine.

Strategy #6: Schedule Face-to-Face Meetings

Staring at your computer or phone all day is a recipe for eye fatigue, according to a 2018 report in BMJ Open Ophthalmology.

In fact, some 60% of digital-device users, across all age groups, report symptoms of eyestrain, according to the Vision Council.

Though scientists are still investigating the long-term effects, the AOA cautions that the "unique characteristics and high visual demands" of viewing digital screens may be harmful. Backlighting, poor contrast, varying type sizes, and the presence of glare and reflections may cause additional strain.

At greatest risk for eyestrain are those who spend two or more continuous hours at a computer.

An easy solution: instead of answering every question at work by email, walk down the hall and talk to a real person occasionally. And be sure to set limits for your kids, too.

Strategy #7: Optimize Your Screen Settings

Enlarging the type and adjusting the brightness level on digital devices may make your eyes feel better.

"I try to keep it on the lowest brightness that is readable for me," Dr. Collins says.

Experiment with your settings to find what's best for you. A good rule of thumb is to aim for a warmer, yellowish hue in dark rooms, and a cooler, bluer hue in bright rooms.

Check for smartphone apps that automatically adjust your display based on your computer or smartphone's location.

Strategy #8: Prioritize Sleep

Poor sleep can really tire out your eyes. In fact, one recent study published in the Journal of Sleep Research linked sleepiness to eyestrain in drivers.

Sleep gives your eye muscles a chance to relax, Dr. Collins says. It also affects the quality of your tear film, the thin layer of lubrication that keeps the eye's surface healthy and moist.

In one South Korean study, sleep-deprived subjects had 60% lower tear secretion than well-rested people had. Their tears also evaporated faster and were of poorer quality.

Your move: rearrange your nightly routine to wrap up any screen time at least an hour before you plan to turn in for the night. The blue light these tech toys emit tricks your body into thinking it's daytime, boosting alertness.

Strategy #9: Apply Eye Drops Before You Need Them

A common symptom of eyestrain is dryness. You can ease or even prevent dry eye by using moisturizing eye drops a few times a day.

"For people who have dry eyes, it's a very good idea to use eye drops as a preventative measure," says Dr. Collins. "If you wait until your eyes feel dry, it's too late. You have to use them on a regular basis to keep the eyes nice and moist."

Stay away from drops that advertise treating redness, she cautions. These drops reduce redness by shrinking blood vessels and are not good for your eyes long term. They can even cause rebound redness, leaving your eyes redder than before.

Lubricating eye drops, or artificial tears, work by supplementing your natural tears to keep the eyes healthy and moist. Stick with preservative-free varieties, especially if you're using them more than four times a day.

Strategy #10: Double-Check Your Prescription Annually

If you're using an outdated eyeglasses or contact lens prescription, you're forcing your eyes to strain to see clearly. This can cause headaches and fatigue.

Have your eyes checked annually. And if your eyestrain persists despite the steps above, book an eye exam with your eye doctor.