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Digital Eye Strain

What It Is, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Author: Emily Miao, PharmD

Editors: Alyssa Haag, Lily Guo, Kelsey LaFayette, DNP

Illustrator: Jessica Reynolds, MS

Modified: 1 May 2024


What is digital eye strain?

Digital eye strain, also known as computer vision syndrome, is a condition that occurs with prolonged use of digital screens and digital devices, resulting in a range of symptoms such as eye discomfort, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain. Digital eye strain is common among people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen (e.g., occupations that require computer work). In the United States, the self-reported prevalence of digital eye strain ranges from 60-69% and is more frequently reported in genetic females.

An infographic detailing the background, causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of digital eye strain; including a woman working at a computer.

What causes digital eye strain?

Digital eye strain is caused by a variety of factors including duration of screen time, inappropriately adjusted screen settings, poor positioning of screens, and prolonged exposure to blue light. The risk of digital eye strain increases with extended screen time, and prolonged use of digital devices without breaks can lead to eye strain. Moreover, improperly positioned digital screens (e.g., not at the individual’s eye level, or far away from eye level) may contribute to digital eye strain. Excessive brightness levels, small fonts, and glare on the screen may cause the individual’s eyes to strain to focus. Finally, digital screens emit a high-energy, visible light (e.g., blue light) that can penetrate one’s eyes and is associated with disruptions in circadian rhythms (e.g., sleep-wake cycles).

Risk factors for developing digital eye strain include a history of an ophthalmologic condition (e.g., dry eye syndrome), older age, uncorrected refractive errors of the eye, reduced blinking frequency, and use of contact lenses. 

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What are the signs and symptoms of digital eye strain?

Signs and symptoms of digital eye strain range from eye discomfort (e.g., dry eyes or a feeling of grittiness in the eyes) to blurred vision and watery eyes. Individuals may be sensitive to bright lights and experience difficulties seeing clearly due to eye symptoms. Non-ophthalmologic symptoms include headaches (e.g., around the forehead and temples), neck and shoulder pain, and muscle spasms, especially if the individual does not maintain adequate posture while using digital devices.

How is digital eye strain diagnosed?

Diagnosis of digital eye strain is clinical and begins with a thorough review of symptoms and medical history. Pertinent history includes eye symptoms, alleviating and exacerbating factors, occupation, and screen time duration. If present, individuals may be referred to an optometrist or ophthalmologist for a vision assessment to correct any underlying refractive errors (e.g., nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism). More specialized tests such as a tear film evaluation, which measures the time it takes one’s tear film (i.e., a layer of tears on eyes) to disappear after one blink, can be performed if dry eyes are suspected. 

How is digital eye strain treated?

Treatment of digital eye strain consists of supportive care measures to improve the individual’s symptoms and overall quality of life. Individuals can be encouraged to reduce excessive digital screen time. For those whose occupations require prolonged digital screen use, the 20-20-20 rule, every 20 minutes may help improve symptoms. The 20-20-20 rule consists of looking at a distant object 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds, every 20 minutes. One can also optimize their setup for digital devices by adjusting the computer screen so that it is at eye level and within an appropriate viewing distance that prevents digital eye strain. Other supportive care measures include blinking frequently to maintain an adequate tear film which helps lubricate the eyes, eye drops such as artificial tears which provide additional lubrication, and prescription or non-prescription anti-glare eyewear. There are also blue light-filtering eyeglasses that attempt to block out blue light, but there is a growing body of literature that suggests that they may not help reduce digital eye strain.

What are the most important facts to know about digital eye strain?

Digital eye strain, also known as computer vision syndrome, is a condition that occurs with prolonged use of digital screens and digital devices, resulting in a range of symptoms such as eye discomfort, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain. Digital eye strain is caused by a variety of factors including duration of screen time, inappropriately adjusted screen settings, poor positioning of screens, and prolonged exposure to blue light. Risk factors for developing digital eye strain include older age, uncorrected refractive errors, reduced blinking frequency, and use of contact lenses. Diagnosis of digital eye strain is clinical and begins with a thorough review of symptoms and medical history. Treatment of digital eye strain consists of supportive care measures (e.g., 20-20-20 rule) to improve the individual’s symptoms and overall quality of life.

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Related links

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Resources for research and reference

American Optometric Association. Computer vision syndrome. 2017. http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/caring-for-your-vision/protecting-your-vision/computer-vision-syndrome?ss0=y. Accessed 8 March 2024.

Blehm C, Vishnu S, Khattak A, Mitra S, Yee RW. Computer vision syndrome: A review. Surv Ophthalmol. 2005;50(3):253-262. doi:10.1016/j.survophthal.2005.02.008

Jaiswal S, Asper L, Long J, Lee A, Harrison K, Golebiowski B. Ocular and visual discomfort associated with smartphones, tablets and computers: What we do and do not know. Clin Exp Optom. 2019;102(5):463-477. doi:10.1111/cxo.12851

Kaur K, Gurnani B, Nayak S, et al. Digital eyesStrain: A comprehensive review. Ophthalmol Ther. 2022;11(5):1655-1680. doi:10.1007/s40123-022-00540-9

Lawrenson JG, Hull CC, Downie LE. The effect of blue-light blocking spectacle lenses on visual performance, macular health and the sleep-wake cycle: A systematic review of the literature. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt. 2017;37(6):644-654. doi:10.1111/opo.12406

Portello JK, Rosenfield M, Bababekova Y, Estrada JM, Leon A. Computer-related visual symptoms in office workers. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt. 2012;32(5):375-382. doi:10.1111/j.1475-1313.2012.00925.x

Sheppard AL, Wolffsohn JS. Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmol. 2018;3(1):e000146. Published 2018 Apr 16. doi:10.1136/bmjophth-2018-000146