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Reduce Your Risk for Computer Vision Syndrome

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Dr. James McGuinness has been a partner with St. Charles Vision (citywide; www.stcharlesvision.com) since 1994. As spokesperson for the company's efforts to educate the public about computer-related eye problems, he offers tips for dealing with Computer Vision Syndrome, an increasingly common problem.

What is the medical term for vision problems related to too much computer use, and what are the symptoms?

We call eye and vision problems related to work using computers Computer Vision Syndrome, or CVS. It's typically characterized by visual symptoms: eye strain, fatigue, blurry vision and irritated eyes.

Who is affected by CVS?

Nowadays, almost everyone. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), it's been clinically proven that CVS affects up to 90 percent of people who use a computer for three hours or more in one day. If you're like some people who (log) eight hours of computer time a day, it's a double whammy. Of course, it varies from patient to patient, but I don't think you can look at another kind of affliction, short of lower back pain and headaches, that more people suffer from.

What changes can employers and employees make to the workplace to reduce these effects?

One of the best ways to reduce CVS is with lighting, which is unfortunate because not everyone has control over this. Basically, you want your lighting to be half of what you'd call ambient lighting, a little darker than what you find in most office environments. Most employees work under fluorescent lights, because they're so cheap, but they're the worst thing you can use while working with a computer. A quick fix from an ergonomic standpoint is to minimize or eliminate outside glare. For example, close the blinds if there is direct sunlight from a window shining onto the screen. Another good rule is to position one's computer at least an arm's length away.

What other measures can an individual take to reduce eye strain?

If you're experiencing any (symptoms), get an eye exam. Most times, the problem can be solved by prescription. But there are also minor, preventive measures. For example, a normal person blinks once every five seconds, while a typical computer user blinks only half as much. One of the most effective ways to prevent eye strain is to make an effort to blink more frequently. Lubricating drops can be helpful, and something as simple as 25 seconds of looking out a window will do wonders to flex the focusing mechanisms.

What are computer glasses? How can they benefit computer users?

Most people over age 40 begin to suffer from presbyopia, which is the inability of the lens on the inside of the eye to change shape, making near vision blurry. Computer glasses are crafted specifically to compensate for that situation, giving a wider range of vision. They were originally devised for people working in cubicles, who might be looking quickly from their computer to things at different distances, straining their eyes. For many patients, computer lenses are an extra pair of glasses, and they're not cheap. But I've been surprised at the amount (of people) who have embraced them and reported a big difference.

Are there any cumulative negative effects from staring at a computer screen all day? Can it actually make your eyes worse?

Once the situation is corrected, the symptoms should go away. It's not rocket science — when people are aware of what's happening, it's pretty simple to prevent. When I started with this 20 years ago, it was a nonexistent issue. Now, there's a legitimate diagnostic code for it, and it's recognized by doctors and businesses as a real problem. Studies have shown billions of dollars are lost by companies due to decreased productivity and mistakes made by workers who suffer from CVS. The increase in its prevalence corresponds to people's increased use of computers. It's important to get the word out about it. Many local businesses are now paying to have their employees evaluated since they realize the financial repercussions.

Do handheld reading devices like iPads and Kindles pose the same problems as computer screens?

Yes, it's the same thing. Technology continues to tackle some of the problems, but, like I said, the rate of use of these devices is much higher, and many of the same problems apply.

How can you rejuvenate tired eyes after a long day?

Try turning off the computer for a while.

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