Computer Vision (Sickness) Syndrome – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Technological advancements has also given rise to new medical conditions, and computer vision syndrome is one of these. It is associated with prolonged staring at a computer screen. While it is not a disease as such, it does highlight the importance of educating people about using a computer appropriately in terms of eyestrain, hours of use and good posture while staring at a screen. Unfortunately this is not included as part of computer learning programs. Computer vision syndrome is gradually becoming a more widely known condition. Despite its name, computer vision syndrome does not only cause visual symptoms.

What is computer vision syndrome?

Computer vision syndrome (CVS) is the associated eyestrain, muscle pain, headaches and other symptoms that arise with prolonged computer use. Due to other symptoms like headaches and sometimes even nausea in severe cases, computer vision syndrome is also at times referred to in common terms as computer sickness. It should not be confused with migraines, epilepsy and motion sickness that may be triggered with playing certain types of video games.

With the widespread use of computers at home, in schools and in the workplace, computer vision syndrome has become a common problem. It affects children and adults. The condition is believed to affects as many as 9 out of 10 people who spend three hours or more per day on the computer. Although computer vision syndrome is not linked to any long term complications, it can cause significant discomfort to affect work and other daily life activities.

Causes of Computer Vision Syndrome

The cause of computer vision syndrome appears to be related to muscle strain. It is mainly a result of the eye muscles being overworked, but the head, neck and face muscles are often also strained with prolonged computer use. Underlying vision problems may increase the risk of CVS and worsen the condition. However, computer vision syndrome is not entirely caused by vision problems like nearsightedness or astigmatism. Computer vision syndrome can even affect a person with 20/20 vision.

The Eye

The eye has muscles that control the movement of the eyeball. These muscles lie outside of the eyeball. It can move the eyeball from side to side as well as up and down. There are also small internal muscles that control the amount of light that enters, as well as muscles that alter the shape of the lens.

These internal muscles allows the eyes to adapt to different light intensities and ensures visual acuity. With prolonged computer use, these muscles become strain. It is due to a combination of having to move the eyes back and forth within a small area, staring at a fixed distance for prolonged periods and the brightness of computer screens at such a close distance to the eye.

eye drops

Head, Neck and Back

Added to this is the strain of the head, face, neck and upper back muscles with computer use. Frowning, squinting, clenching, tilting the head up or down, stooping and sitting stationary with a poor posture strains these muscles. It is particularly significant in modern times as the computer has become an important tool in everyday life and is often used for long periods of time.

Computer Screen

The reason why computer screens strains the eyes to such an extent has to do with the way images are formed. The screen has its own lighting. Images are flickering at 50 to 60 times per second although the brain perceives it as a constant image. Lastly, the images are made up of tiny dots which may not always form a clearly defined image. Collectively, these characteristics add to the eyestrain.

Signs and Symptoms

Some people may experience very mild symptoms after several hours of starting at the screen. Others can suffer with intense symptoms within a few minutes. However, in most instances the severity of symptoms is directly related to the amount of time spent on the computer. The signs and symptoms of computer vision syndrome includes:

Why do I feel sick or suffer with nausea?

Nausea is one of the uncommon symptoms that tends to arise with severe computer vision syndrome. It can even affect eating habits. The nausea should not be confused with nausea related to migraines and motion sickness. These conditions can also be triggered by using the computer for long period of time. It is also more likely to occur with playing fast moving video games especially where there are flickering images. The nausea like other symptoms of computer vision syndrome are not psychogenic, meaning that it is imagined or of psychological origin.

Treatment and Prevention

Fortunately there are no long term complications associated with computer vision syndrome, or at least none have been identified as yet. The key to managing computer vision syndrome is to prevent it. Treatment with eye wear is of limited value if other conservative measures are not implemented. Remember that computer vision syndrome can affect a person who uses the computer even just once a week although daily use is likely to increase the risk of the condition.

There is no specific period of time for which computer use may not trigger the condition. Some people experience symptoms within minutes of staring at the screen while others will only have a problem after hours of using the computer. Not all computer users will suffer with computer vision syndrome. However, it is important to take preventative measures as the condition can adversely affect a person’s life and career.

As part of the treatment measures, existing vision problems need to be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses or refractive eye surgery such as LASIK if necessary. Specially designed eye wear that cuts out glare may be helpful, even for people who do not have vision problems. A lesser known treatment option is vision therapy. It helps to train the eye and brain to function more effectively. It can be helpful for problems with eye movement and focusing.

Prevention Tips

The same tips to avoid eyestrain can be effective for preventing computer vision syndrome.

  • Give your eyes a break every 20 minutes or so during prolonged computer use. Try to focus at an object about 20 feet away for around 20 seconds before returning to the computer. This is known as the 20-20-20 rule.
  • Blinking more frequently can help with reducing eye dryness. It may be difficult to remember to blink often when busy at a computer. Stick a note near the computer screen with the word ‘blink’ as a constant reminder.
  • Position the computer screen about 15° to 20° below eye level. The screen should also be about 25 inches away from the eye.
  • Glare is a problem, not only from the computer screen but also from other sources of lighting in the environment. Reduce bright lights like sunlight streaming in through surrounding windows with drape and blinds and opt for dimmer artificial lights in the room.
  • Do not turn up the brightness of the computer screen to the maximum. Also try to use an anti-glare screen where possible.
  • The seating position is just as important. Always sit upright when using a computer and ensure that the chair has adequate back support.