Could the Cause of Your Headaches Be Digital Eye Strain?

March 3, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Ming He, M.D. contributes to topics such as Neurology.

Regina Krel, M.D. contributes to topics such as Neurology.

Stephen J Martino, M.D. contributes to topics such as Neurology.

It’s 3 p.m., and you start to feel a dull ache behind your eyes. You’ve noticed this happens most weekdays when you’re at work. Once you get home and rest on the couch, the headache vanishes.

If you feel a dull headache behind your eyes after staring at your computer screen for several hours, chances are you could be experiencing something called digital eye strain.

Digital eye strain occurs when you spend too much time staring at a screen, and it can result in everything from headaches and neck tension to dry eyes and blurry vision. Plus, it’s fairly common: According to the Vision Council, over 27 percent of people have experienced headaches as a result of digital eye strain.

“With the rise of technology, we’re seeing more patients come in who experience headaches following long periods of screen use. Patients who suffer from migraines are also identifying screen use as a trigger for their migraine attacks,” says Regina Krel, M.D., director of the Headache Center at Hackensack University Medical Center.

What Is Digital Eye Strain?

Digital eye strain is the direct result of spending too much time staring at a screen. Although headaches are a common symptom of digital eye strain, you might also experience blurry vision, dry eyes, and tension in the neck and upper back. The condition can even lead to psychological symptoms, like irritability and reduced attention span, according to the Vision Council. It’s prevalent in office workers and particularly common in those who wear contact lenses or glasses.

Unfortunately, eye strain isn’t a new symptom—it can occur from staring at anything up close, such as a book or newspaper, for an extended period of time. But research has shown the problem is exacerbated by computers and handheld devices.

“There still isn’t a ton of research on the long-term effects of staring at screens all day,” says Ming He, M.D., neuro-ophthalmology specialist at the Neuroscience Institute at JFK Medical Center. “Until there’s more definitive research, it’s important to protect yourself as much as possible when using the computer.”

Preventing Headaches Caused by Digital Eye Strain

There are certain actions you can take to reduce or eliminate the headaches you’re experiencing as a result of digital eye strain:

  • Make sure your computer monitor is at least 20 to 25 inches away from your eyes.
  • Consider purchasing a blue light filter for your glasses or computer monitor.
  • Keep the lighting in the room as bright as your monitor.
  • Avoid overly dark rooms.
  • Prevent glare on your computer screen.
  • Make your font as large as possible.
  • Take as many breaks as you can. Experts recommend 20 minutes away from your screen every two hours, in addition to shorter breaks every 20 or 30 minutes.
  • Sit up straight, as poor posture can lead to neck tension, which can contribute to headaches.

“If you take some steps to protect yourself, like making your font bigger and taking breaks, you should see your headaches improve,” says neurologist Stephen Martino, M.D., of Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Ocean Medical Center.

If it’s been awhile since you got your vision checked, you should also consider visiting the eye doctor. Experts recommend getting a vision exam at least every year to two years.

Rule out Other Culprits

If your headaches don’t improve after taking some of these precautions, consider visiting your primary care physician, who can refer you to a neurologist or ophthalmologist. Other medical conditions such as migraines and sinusitis can cause headaches that feel like they’re behind the eyes.

“It’s always a good idea to visit the doctor if you’re experiencing headaches all of the sudden,” Dr. Martino says. “Your doctor can rule out any underlying conditions that could be contributing to your headaches.”

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.