Is My Computer Harming My Eyes?

In 1983, more than 10 million computers were in use in the US. By 1986 that number had more than tripled. By 1993, computer use was pervasive throughout the corporate world in America and PC usage was growing at a staggering rate throughout the US. Now it is difficult to find anyone who doesn’t use a computer for work or personal use; computers are used in police cruisers, waitresses and waiters use hand-held devices to take orders and children are spending significant amounts of their school day learning via educational computer programs. Our eyes and vision system are not adapted for working for extended periods of time at arms length distances staring at screens that generally have poor contrast. Many individuals who work at a computer monitor report a high level of job-related complaints and symptoms, including ocular discomfort, muscular strain and stress. The level of discomfort appears to increase with the amount of computer monitor use.(1.2) Visual discomfort and related symptoms occurring in computer workers must be recognized as a growing health problem (3)
Are we hurting our eyes by using computers? If so, what should we be doing to minimize the damage?
Many individuals who work at a computer monitor experience eye-related discomfort and/or visual problems. However, based on current evidence it is unlikely that the use of computer monitors causes permanent changes or damage to the eyes or visual system (4,5)
Vision related symptoms or complaints among workers are common. Studies have found that the majority of workers experience some eye or vision symptoms (1,2,6,7,8) However, it is unclear whether these problems occur to a greater extent in workers who use computer monitors than in workers in other highly visually demanding occupations. A national survey of doctors of optometry found that more than 14% of their patients present with eye or vision-related symptoms resulting from computer work. The most common symptoms are eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision and dry or irritated eyes.(9)
The extent to which an individual may experience symptoms is largely dependent upon his/her visual abilities in relation to the visual demands of the task being performed. These vision problems are not new or unique to computer use. Many individuals in other highly visually demanding occupations will experience similar vision related problems. However, the unique characteristics and high visual demands of computer monitor work make many individuals susceptible to the development of eye and vision-related symptoms. Uncorrected vision conditions, poor computer monitor design and workplace ergonomics and a highly demanding visual task can all contribute tot he development of visual symptoms and complaints.
Vision problems experienced by computer monitor operators are generally only temporary and will decline after stopping comptuer work at the end of the day (10,11) However, some workers may experience continued impaired or reduced visual abilities, such as blurred distance vision, even after work. (12,13) If nothing is done to address the cause of the problems, they will continue to recur and perhaps worsen with future computer monitor use.
Work that is visually and physically fatiguing may result in lowered productivity, increased error rate and reduced job satisfaction. Therefore, steps should be taken to reduce the potential for development of stress and related ocular and physical discomfort in the workplace. (14,15)
Viewing a video display terminal screen is different than viewing a typewritten or printed page. Often the letters on a computer screen are not as precise or sharply defined, the level of contrast of the letters to the background is reduced and the presence of glare and reflections on the screen may make viewing more difficult (16,17).
Viewing distances and angles used for computer monitor work are also often different from those commonly used for other reading or writing tasks. As a result, the eye focusing and eye movement requirements for computer monitor work can place additional demands on the visual system. Older workers particularly may find adjusting to these working requirements difficult.
Eyeglasses or contact lenses prescribed for general use may not be adequate for computer monitor work. Specific occupational lenses prescribed to meet the unique demands of computer monitor work may be needed. (9) Special lens designs, lens powers or lens tints or coatings may help to maximize visual abilities and comfort (18) computer monitor workers who receive eye examinations and occupational eyewear have reported improved comfort and resolution of their symptoms. The quality and efficiency of their work have also been improved (19).
Some computer monitor workers may experience problems with eye focusing or eye coordination that cannot be adequately corrected with eyeglasses or contact lenses. Therapy designed to treat specific binocular vision dysfunctions may be needed. Usually the problem lies with issues of convergence, or the ability of the eyes to come together from a distant point source (far away vision – greater than 20 feet away) to a near point source such as a computer monitor.
A preventive approach to reducing visual stress from computer monitor work incorporates the use of rest or alternate task breaks throughout the workday. Many computer tasks are repetitive and can become stressful both mentally and physically after an extended period of continuous work. Occasional rest or alternate task breaks are helpful to combat fatigue and stress. They provide an opportunity to incorporate different and less visually demanding tasks into the work regimen. Specific rest or task breaks should be based on the individual needs of the computer operator.
The presence of even minor vision problems can often significantly affect worker comfort and performance at a computer monitor. Uncorrected or undercorrected farsightedness, astigmatism, presbyopia and binocular vision (eye coordination and eye focusing_ problems can be major contributing factors to computer monitor eye stress. (9,21,22,23)
A high percentage of computer monitor operators has been bound to have uncorrected or undercorrected vision problems that may affect their visual performance and comfort. (24,25) Although some of these problems may not result in symptoms under less visually demanding conditions, the high demands of computer monitor work cause them to become manifest. All computer monitor workers should have a comprehensive eye examination prior to or soon after beginning computer monitor work and periodically thereafter. The examination should include careful analysis of the functioning of the eyes at intermediate and near working distances.
Like most electrical appliances, computer monitor’s emit both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. These include visible light, ultraviolet, infrared, x-ray and radio frequency emissions. However, computer monitor emissions are often so low as to be unmeasurable or are found to be significantly below recommended safety levels. Numerous studies have been conducted to determine what effect, if any, radiation levels emitted from computer monitors may have on worker’s health. Repeated studies to date have failed to find any direct link between computer monitor use and radiation related general or eye health problems (2, 26-30) There is no evidence that radiation from computer monitors contributes to the development of cataracts.
While not technically a form of radiation, most computer monitors will build up an electrostatic charge in the vicinity of the screen surface. Static charges can cause the attraction and accumulation of dust and other airborne particles on the face of the computer screen. Although there is no conclusive evidence, it has been suggested that these charges may be related to the development of skin rash or eye irritation in some very sensitive people (31,32). This problem can usually be managed by cleaning the computer screen regularly.
One of the most significant environmental factors affecting computer work is lighting. Surveys indicate that many computer users report problems with general workplace lighting, glare and images reflected on the computer screen. (1,6,9) Many problems related to lighting may be caused by the introduction of computers into offices where the lighting was originally designed for traditional desk top work. The lighting is designed on the assumption that workers will perform tasks requiring their lines of sight to be depressed 20 to 40 degrees from the horizontal (4) In any situations, however, computers are placed so that viewing occurs at or even above horizontal eye level.
Bright lights in the peripheral field of view may cause discomfort glare. Windows, overhead fluorescent lights and desk lamps often contribute to this problem. These bright light sources can be controlled with proper workstation and/or room design and arrangement. An acceptable lighting level may require a compromise between that amount of light needed to enhance computer screen visibility and reduce reflections and glare and that needed to perform other office reading and work tasks. Older individuals will generally require more light than younger individuals to perform the same tasks comfortably. Workers over 50 years of age require twice the light levels of young adults for comfortable work (33)
The brightness of the screen and the surrounding room should be balanced. For dim or dark background screens this often requires using lower light levels than are used for other types of office tasks. However, lighting requirements will vary with the task. More lighting may be needed when other source documents are also viewed. In general, lighting levels between 200 and 700 lux (approximately 20 to 70 foot candles) measured at the workstation are recommended (2,34,35) More than 500 lux will usually be needed only to read poor quality documents. This additional lighting may be accomplished through the use of specific task lighting.
Light reflected from the computer screen can produce a veil of light over portions of the screen reducing contrast and visibility of the display characters. It can also form disturbing reflections of nearby or distant objects. Filters can be placed over the computer screen to reduce glare and reflections. However, filters should be considered only as a supplement, not a replacement, for control of light and reflections through proper lighting design and monitor placement. Anti-reflection coating on eyeglass lenses is a much better filter, as reflections come from around the entire work area, not just the monitor.
Windows are a major source of glare in many offices. Computer operators should avoid facing an unshaded window since the difference in brightness between the computer screen and the area behind it may be extremely stressful and uncomfortable. Operators should also not sit with their back to an unshaded window since they will cast annoying shadows on their computer screens. Adjustable shades, curtains or blinds should be sued to effectively control light levels throughout the day.
Proper ergonomic design and adjustment of the monitor and the work environment can increase productivity and worker comfort by decreasing the visual demands of the task. Overall display legibility is an important factor in visual performance (36-39) Screen brightness and contrast should be adjusted to provide balance with room lighting and maximum visibility. Lowering screen brightness will generally reduce problems related to image stability or character flicker. Regular cleaning of the computer screen according to manufacturers’ directions will remove dust and dirt that may also interfere with screen visibility.
The color of screen characters may also affect their ease of visibility. The color of the characters can affect how the eyes focus on the computer screen and may bring about the development of harmless, but annoying, after-images for some individuals. Monochrome, or single color, displays often provide more legible images for word processing or data entry/acquisition tasks. Negative contrast computer displays (dark letters on a light background) generally provide a more legible image than positive contrast displays (light letters on a dark background). Either black characters on a white background or white characters on a black background have been found to be more visible than green, yellow-orange, blue or red characters. (16)
Adjustment of the workstation to meet the individual needs of the operator is also important for overall performance and comfort. Inadequate viewing distances and angles can impose the necessity for awkward postures when viewing a computer monitor. The direction of gaze can also affect the eyes’ focusing ability. Accommodative amplitude has been shown to be reduced with elevation of the eyes (40) The higher gaze angles at many workstations result in viewing conditions for which the amplitude of accommodation is reduced thus placing greater strain on the eyes focusing mechanism. The eyes and head should be in a slightly downward gaze when viewing a computer screen. AS a result, the top of the screen should be slightly below the horizontal eye level of the operator with no portion of the screen at an angle greater than 40 degrees below the horizontal.
Musculoskeletal problems related to head and eye postures when working at a computer are common and can often be alleviated through proper workstation adjustment. Computer workstation furniture should be adjustable and designed so that operators can easily change postures. Computer monitors that have detachable keyboards, screens that can be tilted to a comfortable viewing angle and moveable document holders allow operators to arrange the work area to their particular needs. (35) Older workers because of visual changes such as presbyopia and increased susceptibility to glare, may be especially vulnerable to problems of poor workstation design.
Some office environments have been implicated in causing eye irritation because of their dry atmosphere. The airtight environment also traps vapors and particulate matter from office furnishings. This can be a particular problem for contact lens wearers. (41) These problems can be further exacerbated by decreased blinking caused by staring at a computer monitor.
The use of computer monitors is associated with a decreased frequency of blinking and an increased rate of tear evaporation, each of which contributes to dry eyes. (42-44) The use of artificial tears can provide relief from dry eye symptoms in some cases. In addition, the width of the palpebral fissure (between upper and lower eyelids), and hence the exposed ocular surface area, can be decreased by placing the computer monitor at a lower height.
Video display terminals are used in a broad range of occupations and their use is increasing. Many computer monitor operators experience various eye and vision related symptoms and ocular discomfort. However, many of the potential eye and/or vision problems relating to computer monitor use can be reduced or eliminated by appropriate adjustment and placement of the computer monitor, proper workplace design and lighting control, good preventive vision care habits and regular professional eye care (45, 46)
Through research and clinical practice, optometry provides unique and effective means to address the vision problems and occupational needs of computer monitor users. Computers workers and others concerned with their eye health and vision should seek the advice and assistance of doctors of optometry int heir community regarding the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and/or management of computer monitor related problems in the workplace.
The American Optometric Association will continue to develop and distribute information to improve public understanding of the importance of good vision and ergonomics related to the unique demands of computer monitor use and will monitor and offer its guidance in the development of policy and/or legislation related to the regulation and use of computer monitors.  Courtesy of the American Optometric Association
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3 Responses

  1. Hello all

    Interesing article. I look forward to further development of the site.

  2. Thanks for such a comprehensive article (esp. citations). I’ve been banging this particular drum for 20 years during which eye problems have gone exponential. In the UK we had a mandatory work place risk assessment introduced but few smaller employers bother to do them. Greater employee awareness would be a good start

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