How to protect your eyes
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An average Indian office-goer spends 6-8 hours daily looking at computer, mobile or television screens, says P. Suresh, consultant ophthalmologist at Fortis Hospital, Mumbai. “The figure is worse for IT professionals or people who use computers for work, as they spend 12-16 hours in front of screens .” That’s more than half a day spent gazing at a screen, glued to a laptop or a smartphone.
“It is like running on a treadmill all the time. You’re not giving any rest to the muscles of your eyes,” says Dr Suresh.
Continuously gazing at a screen causes stress, “leading to eye fatigue and strain, with symptoms like headaches, itching, blurred vision, red eyes, burning sensation, heavy eyes and, sometimes, difficulty in focusing”, says Parul Sharma, senior eye surgeon at Max Eye Care, Delhi.
If you think taking a break from your computer and WhatsApping will make a difference, it won’t. The closer you are to the screen, the more you strain your eyes.
So what should you do?
Symptoms of the long stare
Before we tell you how to avoid eye strain, it would help to understand what this strain does to your body. The most common symptom is dry eyes, a compound result of reduced blinking and sitting all day long in air-conditioned offices, which leads to the evaporation of natural tears and results in dryness of the iris, says Dr Suresh.
Moreover, if you are in front of a computer, chances are you are also harming your body, sitting or slouching while staring at the screen. “You are likely to experience back pain from long periods of sitting, muscle tension due to stress, carpal tunnel syndrome because you’re using the same set of muscles and nerves of the wrist and hands in the same way, and stiffness in the neck and shoulder,” says M. Vamshidhar, medical director, Dr Agarwal’s Eye Hospital, Hyderabad.
And though research hasn’t proved this yet conclusively, your eyes could be ageing prematurely, says Nikhil Sardar, ophthalmologist, Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai. “It’s only after 30-40 years that we will find if the high-energy light emitting from the backlit digital screens we gaze at all the time will age our eye muscles spectacularly or not,” he says.
Go orange and green
To strengthen your eye muscles, include fish oil, flaxseeds and sunflower seed oil in your diet. “All of these contain omega 3 fatty acids which protect the eyes from dryness and muscular degeneration,” says Shikha Sharma, founder and managing director of Nutri-Health Systems, a holistic health clinic in Delhi. “Add in vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, lemons, berries and grapefruits and lutein- and zeaxanthin-rich green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli to reduce the risk of cataract and macular degeneration.”
Do the 20
Eye strain, medically called “accommodative fatigue”, is the tiredness you feel if you stare at near objects for far too long, explains Dr Sardar. As you focus constantly on nearby or close-up objects, the inner eye muscle becomes used to close-up work and loses the flexibility to focus on distant objects, says Dr Vamshidhar. “The more you do close-up work, such as using the computer or using smartphones, the more the distance vision declines, until all you see is a blur,” he says.
Take a break, follow the 20-20-20 rule, suggest the two doctors. Every 20 minutes, take a break and gaze at something more than 20ft away and blink voluntarily for 20 seconds.
Lower your screen
If working on a laptop or computer, keep the screen 20 degrees below eye level, says Dr Sardar. “You look down on the screen with half-closed eyes. This way, the surface area of the eye where water is evaporating and drying is lesser.” Don’t keep it too low or too high though, as that will lead to eye strain, says Sharma. “Your eyes become dry and irritated because this forces you to constantly keep the eyes wide open and blink less frequently,” she says. Keep the centre of the screen about 4-5 inches lower and at a 20-28 inches distance from the eyes.
Dim the brightness
Eye strain is often caused by excessively bright light around a screen, be it from sunlight or from harsh interior lighting, says Dr Vamshidhar. “When you use a computer, your ambient lighting should be about half as bright as that is typically found in most offices,” he says, suggesting you draw the drapes, shades or blinds over windows, switch off florescent lights and opt for lower-intensity bulbs and tubes. Never position your computer monitor or screen in front of a window. In addition, use an anti-glare screen, or add anti-reflective coating to your glasses. “AR (anti-reflective) coating reduces glare by minimizing the amount of light reflecting off the front and back surfaces of your eyeglass lenses,” he says.
Staring constantly at the screen leads to chronic subtle drying, says Dr Sardar. “When we blink, the upper lid goes down and picks up a thin layer of tears from the lower lid and forms the tear film which allows us to have clear vision,” he says. When you stare too long at a screen, this tear film dries up, leading to reflex eye watering or the sensation of a foreign body in the eye. You can resolve the dry-eye problem by blinking regularly, consciously and voluntarily, he says.
Exercise the eye
Exercise strengthens eye muscles, prevents eye strain, lessens muscle fatigue, reduces heaviness and pain due to prolonged work and delays the onset of near-vision problems as you age, says Dr Suresh. Look at a distant object for 10-15 minutes, then gaze at something up close for 10-15 minutes, and look back at the same distant object. “Do this 10 times and it’ll reduce the risk of your eyes’ focusing ability to lock up or go into accommodative spasm after prolonged computer work,” says Dr Vamshidhar.
Another instant relaxation technique is to rub your palms together and cup your eyes for a minute. Also, with your eyes open and head straight, change the focus of the eye by looking side to side, rotating your irises, and looking upwards and downwards repeatedly for a few minutes.
Consider using drops
“If you constantly rub your eyes because there’s a stinging, burning or scratchy sensation , opt for eye drops to moisten them,” says Ranjana Mithal, senior consultant, ophthalmology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi. Since contact lenses dry your eyes further , remove them when at home.
Get them checked regularly
Long use of screens is associated with a higher risk of developing myopia, says Dr Suresh. “If you’re already long-sighted, you might develop more symptoms if you don’t use the right corrective glasses or strain to keep focus on the screen,” he says. Get a baseline eye check-up annually.
Keep screens away from the bed
Communication devices and tablet computers with self-luminous backlit displays can cause melatonin levels to drop, making it much harder to fall asleep, says Dr Vamshidhar. “Melatonin, a hormone, is involved in regulating our circadian rhythm, our body clock. Fluctuations in melatonin levels influence our desire to stay awake or go to sleep.” Don’t use any screens at least 1 hour before going to sleep so that your eyes get enough rest.