Seeing Eye Health in a New Light
Humans rely on all five senses to evaluate and experience the world every day, rarely stopping to consider what life would be like without them. Most of us take for granted our ability to see the world in dazzling colors and couldn’t imagine living in the dark.
Karen B. Saland, M.D., an ophthalmologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, said people often do not think about their eye health until they notice a problem.
“Some eye diseases are ‘sneaky’ and don’t have warning signs,” she explained. “In fact, many eye diseases and eye problems are very prevalent but can go undetected for years. Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States, and the most common form has no warning signs.
“The effect is so gradual and painless in most cases that you may not notice a change in vision until the condition is at an advanced stage. It can occur at any age, but it is more prevalent in older adults.”
While eye diseases often affect older adults at a higher rate, eyestrain and injuries are a concern for younger individuals, especially in the workplace. According to the American Optometric Association, the average U.S. worker spends seven hours a day on the computer, leading to digital eyestrain or other vision problems for over half of those surveyed. These issues often compound when already strained eyes are further taxed by handheld electronic devices during a person’s time away from the office.
Saland said the digital world has taken a toll on our eyes.
“Electronics are everywhere … whether it’s a phone, computer or tablet, people of all ages are using something all the time,” she said. “The problem is that when we use these devices, we tend to have a reduced blink rate which causes dryness and fatigue in the eyes. These issues can also occur if you read for many hours.
“As the eyes get tired and drier, vision can start to suffer, often becoming blurry or foggy. Blinking sometimes helps but is only a temporary fix. If the symptoms go untreated and you keep working on your device for hours on end, the eyelids may begin to twitch (blepharospasm), or you may experience computer vision syndrome.”
Computer vision syndrome causes eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and neck and shoulder pain. Saland said eyestrain could cause further issues in a person that already has underlying eye problems.
“If you have a muscle imbalance between the two eyes, extended periods of intense use can cause the muscles to fatigue, and the imbalance would start to show in a slight double vision,” she explained. “This can cause or worsen the eyestrain.”
Common causes of eyestrain include:
- Looking at digital device screens for extended periods of time
- Reading without pausing to rest your eyes
- Driving long distances and doing other activities involving extended focus
- Exposure to bright light or glare
- Straining to see in very dim light
- An underlying eye problem, such as dry eyes or uncorrected vision (refractive error)
- Stress or fatigue
- Exposure to dry, moving air from a fan, heating or air-conditioning system
Additionally, Saland said computer use strains eyes more than reading print material for several reasons.
“We blink less when using computers, and blinking is key to moistening the eyes,” she said. “People also often view digital screens at less-than-ideal distances or angles and use devices that have glare or reflection. Also, we use devices with poor contrast between the text and background, which causes eyestrain.”
To reduce eyestrain both at work and home, Saland recommended making the following small lifestyle adjustments:
- Throughout the day, give your eyes a break by looking away from your monitor. Try the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
- Use over-the-counter artificial tears to help with underlying dryness. If there is a fan around you, make sure it isn’t blowing directly in your face. Try blinking more often to help lubricate the eyes.
- Adjust the lighting to reduce glare from the screen.
- If you use document holders, make sure they are placed at a similar distance from you, like your computer. This way, your eyes don’t have to adjust every time you look down or at the document. Also, use larger print or font if possible. Some people may need glasses to help them focus at specific distances.
- Be sure to maintain a correct prescription for your glasses or contact lenses to help reduce eyestrain and the possibility of chronic headaches. Over-the-counter readers are inexpensive but can cause problems if they aren’t the right prescription.
- Saland said some of the most important things to know is that getting a complete eye exam is crucial to catch problems and that people shouldn’t just rely on a prescription check.
“Many eye diseases are silent, so the only way to know if you have one is to get a complete exam and be proactive about your health,” she said. “A quick prescription check at your standard eyeglasses store may seem like an eye exam, but often there is no screening for glaucoma, macular degeneration or other diseases of the retina.
“It’s important to know your family history and understand what it means. If your parents or siblings have glaucoma and you haven’t been checked, you should be. Genetics are playing an ever-increasing role, not just in eye health, but overall health. Eye health can be affected by obesity and diabetes, as well as race and gender. Some people are predisposed to certain diseases based on their ethnicity and where they’re from.”
While taking time out of a busy schedule to get a complete eye exam may seem like a burden, Saland said that defense is the best offense in preventing long-term eye issues.
“Life is busy, and it can be cumbersome to go to the ophthalmologist, get your eyes dilated and then not be able to work or study for a short period. This small sacrifice could pay off in the long run though if we can detect eye diseases before they become severe and cause any permanent damage.
“Remember, many things that involve the eye and create permanent damage don’t hurt and there are no warning signs so be proactive,” she advised. “Damage from diabetes, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration are not reversible. If these issues go untreated and lead to vision loss, we can’t get it back.”
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