Eye strain, otherwise known as asthenopia, refers to a range of uncomfortable symptoms that can be experienced when looking at something, often for a long time. Although it can be uncomfortable, eye strain doesn’t lead to permanent eye damage, and symptoms can be easily reduced.
Since March 2020, eye strain issues have become particularly common, with 1 in 3 people noticing a deterioration in their eyesight as a result of increased screen time during the pandemic. If you want to find out more about how the pandemic and the increase in working from home affected eye health in 2020, read our Hindsight Report. Or, if you are concerned about your child’s eye health due to increased levels of online learning, read our article on screen time for kids.
Causes of eye strain
Eye strain is often caused when the eyes are intensely focused on a task for a prolonged period of time. Common causes include:
- Reading without resting your eyes
- Driving for long periods of time
- Straining to see in dim lighting
- Exposure to bright light
One of the most common causes of eye strain is computer and digital screen use.
Computer eye strain
Many people who use computers complain of eye strain. Looking at a monitor for a long time can strain your eyes or make any other problems you are having with your eyes seem more noticeable. It is important to protect your eyes and take preventative measures against computer eye strain.
Although eye strain can cause discomfort, it usually isn’t serious and goes away when you have rested your eyes. You might not be able to shorten the amount of time you’re in front of a computer at work, or change any of the factors that can cause eye strain, but there are steps you can take to reduce it.
Does presbyopia cause eye strain?
If you’re an adult aged around 40-55, it might be that you’re feeling the effects of eye strain as a result of presbyopia. Presbyopia is a common symptom of your eyes ageing, and it could mean that you begin to experience eyestrain more frequently, particularly when using digital screens at a normal reading distance or looking at your phone up-close.
If this sounds like something you’re experiencing, it’s worth booking an appointment with an optician to have a closer look at your eye health.
How to prevent eye strain
Book an eye test
Regular eye examinations are essential for clear, comfortable vision. But they also offer a broader health assessment – the optometrist checks the health of your eyes and looks for signs of other medical conditions.
The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 stipulate that employees using Visual Display Units (VDUs or computer monitors) should be provided with an eye examination, funded by their employer.
When you have your test, let the optometrist know you use computers often. You can book an eye test with your local Specsavers branch here.
Read more about your rights to a free eye test and glasses through your employer.
Most people will not need to do any eye exercises but, particularly for those people whose eyes do not work well as a pair, they can be beneficial in reducing symptoms.
For those people who require them, If practised carefully and regularly, certain exercises may be able to help delay the onset of some conditions, and can help reduce the symptoms of digital eye strain.
For instance, some people may experience convergence insufficiency from studying for a long time or while doing a job that requires lots of screen time. Convergence insufficiency is a condition that is caused by the weakening of the eye muscles, making it difficult to focus both eyes on a close-range object.
Eye exercises, which can be practised at home, are recommended to help reduce symptoms of convergence insufficiency.2
This technique is recommended for all screen users. If you spend a lot of the day looking at a screen, you should try the 20:20:20 rule. This simply means you should take a small break every 20 minutes to focus your eyes on something 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. This will help your eye muscles relax, and reduce the likelihood of digital eye strain.
What is eye yoga?
It’s called yoga for a reason — effectively, you are supposedly stretching and strengthening your eyes as you would with your body during a yoga session. Palming, blinking, and eye-rolling are some techniques that yogis claim can help your vision.
Although some eye exercises can help to reduce eye strain, be wary of suggestions around the use of eye yoga, as there’s currently no scientific evidence that it can help your vision.
Does eye yoga work?
The short answer is, no.
Can eyesight be improved by eye yoga?
Eye yoga will not improve your eyesight or reverse any eye conditions you may have.
A clinical study into the impact of eye yoga on people with vision conditions such as presbyopia found that 93% of participants saw mild to no improvements in their vision as a result of the yoga.1 The good news is that it does no harm, and exercising your eyes may help to make them feel more comfortable.
Convergence to a pen
For this exercise, you will need a pen or something like a wooden lollipop stick with a small picture attached to the end:
- First, straighten your head and hold the pen at arm’s length, at eye-level, in front of you. Focus your gaze on the tip of the pen, making sure it’s clear.
- Next, start to move the pen slowly towards your nose, ensuring it remains in focus the whole time.
- If the pen becomes doubled or blurry at any point, stop moving it. Continue looking at the pen and try to focus the image — the muscles in your eye should pull the blurred pen into focus.
- *An important note here: If the pen becomes blurry, do not close one eye, blink, or look away to refocus your gaze. You should keep your eyes on the pen at all times, and try your best to exercise your eye muscles and regain your focus.
- If you can make the image clear again, continue to move the pen towards your nose. When it becomes blurry, repeat Step 3 to regain your focus.
- If you cannot get your eyes to focus on the pen once it becomes blurred, try moving it back a bit (perhaps 2-3 centimetres) to help your eyes focus again.
The goal of this exercise is to strengthen your eye muscles so you can bring the pen forward to touch your nose and keep the image clear. The closer the pen is to you, the harder this will be.
To practice jump convergence, you will need a fixation point about three or four metres away, and a near point (like the pen held at arm’s length in the previous exercise):
- First, hold out your pen and focus your gaze on your far fixation point.
- Next, quickly ‘jump’ your focus on to the pen, making sure the pen appears clear. If the pen is blurry, pull your eyes in to focus your gaze.
- Once the pen is clear, jump back to your far fixation point. Continue switching from close to far until both images remain in focus every time you ‘jump’.
- When this becomes easy, move your pen slightly closer to your nose and repeat the process, ‘jumping’ from near to far and focusing your gaze.
- Continue the exercise until the pen is almost touching your nose.
This exercise is aimed at helping you to control and strengthen your gaze when moving your eyes between close and far distances.
- Gopinathan, G., et al., ‘A clinical study to evaluate the efficacy of Trataka Yoga Kriya and eye exercises (non-pharmacological methods) in the management of Timira (Ammetropia and Presbyopia)’, An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda 33:4 (2012), pp.543-546. [online] [Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665208/ ].
- Orthoptic Department, ‘Home Exercises to Improve Convergence Insufficiency: Patient Information’, NHS Foundation Trust (Published November 2019, to be reviewed November 2021).