All Eye Strain is Not Alike

Find out some of the less obvious causes and what to do if your eyes don’t feel their best

Woman with eye strain

You can probably picture the scene: An office worker in her cubicle, rubbing her eyes wearily. If you could ask her, she’d say her eyes feel tired. Heavy. Sore.

What she’s suffering from is eye strain, and staring at a computer for hours at a time is one obvious way it happens. But there are others.

There’s the new parent, whose lack of sleep at night leads to droopy lids during the day. Or the college student who’s just pulled a series of all-nighters during finals and feels twitchy muscles around his eyes. Or the landscaper running power tools all day whose eyes feel scratchy and dry.

There’s a blanket term for all these types of eye strain: asthenopia. There are two sets of symptoms for the condition—one external (burning, dryness, excessive tearing, and irritation of the eye) and one internal (headaches and other symptoms of muscle strain such as neck, shoulder, or back pain).

One of the most common causes of eye strain is overexposure to screens; gazing at a lighted screen close up forces the eyes to continually focus. It also makes us less likely to blink often enough to keep our eyes from drying out.

“Physiologically, when you use your eyes for a prolonged period of time with intensity, your eyes just get tired of focusing,” says Alicia Pecco, OD, a Philadelphia-based optometrist. That tiredness leads to a number of symptoms, including:

  • Headaches: These may be caused by long periods of focusing on something close to your eyes, such as a computer screen or phone/tablet, or printed reading material. “You use muscles around your eyes to focus and refocus the eyes, which can cause the muscles to be overused,” says Dr. Pecco. (Tip: One way to be sure your headaches are due to eye strain and don’t have another cause is to take a rest from what you’re focusing on. If the headache goes away, you have your answer.)
  • Blurred vision: Again, the intensity of focusing can lead to blurred vision. That said, notes Dr. Pecco, blurriness can be a sign of an undiagnosed vision problem, so if you continually have blurred vision, see an eye doctor.
  • Irritated or dry eyes: That scratchy, dry feeling is caused by keeping your eyes open for too long. Oftentimes, when you’re focused on, say, a screen, you don’t blink enough, so your eyes aren’t getting bathed in moisturizing tears. “That dryness can also make your eyes feel tired,” says Dr. Pecco.
  • Watery eyes: In contrast to the point above, trying to focus your eyes too closely can make your eyes water, which can also be irritating.

Can Eye Strain Be Dangerous?

Good news: Probably not, says Dr. Pecco. “Even though eye strain can be annoying, most times it’s not a serious condition.” You can, she says, usually help yourself by taking steps to reduce the issues that have led to eye strain.

Here’s how:

  • Take more breaks: If your eye strain is screen-related, you may be able to ease it by giving your eyes a chance to focus on something farther away than your computer or phone, says Dr. Pecco. “Try the 20-20-20 rule, which is taking a break every 20 minutes to gaze at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.” Set a reminder if you have to.
  • Check your lighting: Is the light a bit dim where you’re working or reading? That may be forcing you to strain your eyes to see properly. If necessary, get brighter task lighting or move your desk closer to a window.
  • Evaluate air quality: If air conditioning or heating vents are blowing on you, that can dry out your eyes and leave them feeling irritated. See if you can adjust or turn down vents, or add a humidifier to your space.
  • Keep your eyes moist: Blinking is your body’s way of bathing your eyes in tears, which keeps them from drying out. If you find yourself not blinking, try to remind yourself to do it (maybe during your 20-20-20 break). “Or, you can get [over-the-counter] artificial tears that you can use once or twice throughout the day to prevent dryness,” says Dr. Pecco.
  • Don’t rub your eyes: It’s natural to want to rub tired, irritated, or sore eyes—but that may make the problem worse. Instead, take a break and just close your eyes for a few moments.

If all else fails: If you’ve taken a rest and tried other means of alleviating your eye strain, but your symptoms are persisting, “you should definitely get your eyes checked by your optometrist or ophthalmologist, just to rule out anything else,” says Dr. Pecco.

In fact, she adds, if you’ve never had your eyes examined or it’s been a while, go ahead and do so. “You could find that you may, in addition to eye strain, also have an undiagnosed refractive error,” which is a problem focusing light correctly that can make eye strain worse.