Baylor College of Medicine

A man holding his head because his head hurts.

Alleviating eyestrain headaches

Homa Warren


Houston, TX -

People are increasingly spending time in front of screens on a daily and even hourly basis, giving eye muscles little chance to rest. A Baylor College of Medicine ophthalmologist explains how headaches form from eye strain and how to give your eyes a break.
“We focus on one object, especially an object that’s up close, like a computer screen or phone for prolonged periods of time, and we don’t give our eye muscles time to rest,” said Dr. Masih Ahmed, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Baylor. “If you don’t give your muscles enough time to rest, that can cause some tension of those muscles.”

When you look at up-close objects like phones and tablets, the muscles in the eye accommodate, which allows your eyes to zoom in and your pupils to change in size so you can focus. Tension can occur if eye muscles stay in this state for a prolonged period.
Dry eye is another common cause of eyestrain. When you focus on reading, working on the computer or watching television, you subconsciously blink less, which leads to the tear film evaporating, resulting in irritation of dry eye.
Mitigating strain

Ahmed recommends the 20-20-20 rule when working in front of a screen: take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to focus on something 20 feet away to give your eyes a chance to relax.
He also suggests using artificial tears for those who suffer from dry eye. Put in the tears before working in front of the computer, even if your eyes do not feel tired, to reduce eye strain from dry eye.

Prolonged eyestrain often promotes headaches. If you wear corrective lenses, make sure you have the proper prescription as some might be too strong or too weak to reduce eye strain.
If you have an uncorrected refractive error and your vision is not as sharp, you might require more focus or energy to be able to see something, which can lead to a headache.
“You might squint more trying to get that pinhole effect for things to look clearer. Astigmatism can also make things look distorted in shape if your astigmatism is not corrected,” he said.
Glasses and contacts

People can get headaches from glasses if they sit too tight on the temples, so make sure your glasses always fit well. Stronger prescription glasses are thicker on the edge, which can cause distortion for the vision on the edge of the glasses, leading to distorted vision.
“Because they sit further off your eye, they may require more power of your muscles in the eye to be able to focus on close tasks whereas contact lenses sit on your eye, so that decreases the amount of focusing power that you may need,” Ahmed said. “Contacts give you that full vision whereas glasses stop right there and the edge, especially thicker ones, can be tougher to see through.”
People who feel pain from glasses or struggle with glasses or contacts may consider getting refractive surgery like Lasik to reduce the burden of wearing glasses and focusing through those lenses. Refractive surgery gives you your best corrected vision without needing glasses or contacts.
When adults reach ages 40 to 50, the ability to focus up close diminishes, so they might need presbyopia correcting glasses or reading glasses to avoid squinting and eye strain.
If you wear progressive lenses, your eyes scan to find that sweet spot, and eventually you might get used to it, but depending on the prescription, that can be tiring for the brain to scan through, causing headaches. Some might opt to remove their progressive lenses if they cause irritation and put on reading glasses. Switching your progressive lenses for reading glasses throughout the day will not cause damage to your eye.
“When you put on reading glasses, the whole glass you're looking through is meant for that power for you to read through so that makes it a little easier because you're not having to look down through that bifocal or progressive part of the lens,” he said.
Research shows the blue light blocking glasses make no difference for eye strain or irritation but wearing them will not lead to eye issues if you prefer them.

The room light and the computer screen light should be similar when working in front of a monitor. It can be helpful to have a backlight behind your computer screen to provide a softer glow. Sitting in a dark room with a bright screen can cause trouble with focus and more eye strain.
“This becomes more common as we work on computers and spend time with screens. Dry eye has increased, and eye strain symptoms have increased as well, so make sure you take frequent breaks and work in a well-lit space,” Ahmed said.

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