Eye strain — also called “tired eyes” or eye fatigue — is believed to be a problem for more people today than ever before. Why is this? With more time spent staring into electronically-lit screens everyday (such as phones or computers) along with less simply resting the eyes, most of us are experiencing eye strain.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science reports that “Nowadays, university students are readily exposed to accelerated environmental eye fatigue as frequent users of computer screens. Eye fatigue is a frequent complaint due to computer usage for academic or recreational purposes, and for social networking.”
Researchers found that eye strain was ultimately influenced by factors including “artificial or insufficient lighting, prolonged watching of visual displays, poor diet, eye muscle inefficiency due to prolonged hours of office work and academic studies, psychosocial and emotional tension, and aging.” (1) What are some of the ways you can find relief from symptoms like dryness, irritation, redness and decreased visual acuity? These include taking breaks from screen time and practicing eye exercises. It’s also important to take care of your eyes as you age by managing stress and eating a nutrient-dense diet.
What is Eye Strain?
Eye strain affects the muscles and nerves of the eyes. It is also called asthenopia. (2) With eye strain, the tiny muscles and nerves of the eyes become overworked, stressed and fatigued. Unlike many other eye disorders, eye strain can develop in people with no medical or genetic history of eye problems. It can also occur at a young age. For most people, symptoms include headaches, trouble focusing, pain in and around the eyes, and even irritability.
Didn’t know your eyes could actually become “tired”? Focusing light in order to make out images, read text and follow moving objects in your visual field takes a great deal of work. All day long a wide variety of visual information is perceived through the eyes. Our eyes are sensitive to things like too much light exposure, lack of sleep, nutrient deficiencies, muscular tension and environmental pollutants.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Eye Strain
The following symptoms may be a sign you’ve developed eye strain: (3)
- Burning sensations in the eyes.
- Feeling heaviness in the forehead and surrounding the eye sockets.
- Developing headaches behind the eyes, in between the eyes (on the center of the forehead) or on the sides of the eyes. Ocular Migraines tend to cause less severe pain than aura migraines. But they do cause temporary visual disturbances that can affect one or both eyes. (4) Risk factors for ocular migraines are similar are to those for eye strain.
- Redness in the eyes and signs of irritation or inflammation, such as eye dryness or glassiness.
- Pain around the eyes that tends to get worse as the day goes on, but usually disappears with rest.
- Decreased symptoms on days when you’re not spending lots of time reading, on the computer or doing work involving focusing.
- Difficulty concentrating due to tension, or experiencing brain fog.
- In severe cases, poor visual acuity, blurred vision or double vision can occur.
Eye Strain Causes and Risk Factors
Intense eye use, including lots of focusing or exposure to bright lights causes eye fatigue (or strain, heaviness or tiredness). Some behaviors and situations that put a good deal of strain on the eyes include: reading (especially small text when in dim light, or making out small text that’s far away), writing, driving, texting on your phone, typing on a computer, watching television, playing video games, or directly looking into the sun.
Risk factors for developing eye strain commonly include:
- Many hours spent on electronic, artificially-lit screens. This includes using personal computers at work or at home, along with phones, tablets, or televisions. A high percentage of the light coming off of these devices is “blue light.” This light has been linked to problems like pain in the eyes, headaches and trouble sleeping when used close to bedtime. It’s now estimated that “computer-related eye symptoms” may be responsible for up to 10 million eye doctor visits a year in the U.S alone! (5)
- Spending a lot of time playing video games, either on the computer or a TV. This is a growing cause of eye strain among children and teens.
- Constantly staring at spaces or objects that are very near to our eyes, rather than those that are further away in the distance. Focusing on close distances, such as when we’re reading small text on a device only a foot or so in front of our face, requires a lot of eye involvement. Our eyes prefer gazing far off into the environment for more hours of the day, rather than focusing on objects that are small and placed too near to the eyes.
- Having a vision problem or an eye disorder that already strains the eyes. For example, wearing contact glasses or glasses or nearsightedness and farsightedness or having an astigmatism. This is a bigger risk factor if the condition isn’t being treated properly, leading to things like frequent squinting.
- Spending lots of time in the sun without wearing sunglasses or a hat.
- Being very fatigued, run down or chronically stressed.
Conventional Treatments for Eye Strain
If you choose to visit an eye doctor regarding your painful eye strain symptoms they will likely start by evaluating you to find the underlying cause of your pain. Certain underlying vision problems, such as refractive error or untreated nearsightedness, can contribute to symptoms and should be treated. Your eye-care professional will help correct your vision and reduce squinting using methods like glasses or contact lenses. Keep up with regular eye exams at least once every other year (or yearly if you require a prescription), especially as you age. Talk to your doctor about changes in vision or strong symptoms such as migraines.
Some of the methods doctors typically use to treat eye strain symptoms include:
- Encouraging you to take breaks from electronic devices and reading.
- If necessary having you change your home environment, lifestyle and work habits to give your eyes a break.
- If you have dryness in your eyes or trouble with blinking your doctor might recommend also using artificial tears. These can rewet the eyes, but usually won’t solve the underlying problem. Look for types without preservatives and try to only use them when totally necessary, not more than 3-4 times daily.
- Teaching you eye exercises (described below).
- Your doctor may recommend natural treatments. These could include: a yoga program, breathing, joint exercises, visual cleansing exercises, and relaxation in order to reduce tension surrounding the eyes and head. (6)
7 Natural Treatments For Eye Strain
1. Take Breaks From Electronic Devices
According to Eye Health Web, the most common reason for strained eyes is Computer Vision Syndrome. This is caused by using a computer for a long time. (7) Try to take breaks regularly from working on a computer, looking at your phone, reading or focusing on other near objects. Take time regularly throughout your day to blink enough and to simply close your eyes for a few moments. Be sure to take breaks to go get some water, get away from your desk by standing up and stretching. Go for a brief walk outside, move around your home or do a short meditation (or take a nap!). Or, engage in any other soothing activity that lets you soften your gaze, de-stress for a few minutes and regain concentration.
2. Try Soothing Eye Exercises
Students and adults who spend lots of time working on the computer and reading are at one of the greatest risks for eye strain. Undergraduate nursing students performed “yogic eye exercises” during an 8-week period for a study on how to reduce symptoms of eye fatigue. They experienced significant improvements compared to a control group. The study involved the “eye exercise group” practicing yogic eye exercise interventions for 60 minutes, two days a week, for 8 weeks total.
Each intervention included 8 steps aimed towards soothing symptoms of eye strain. These were: palming, blinking, sideways viewing, front and sideways viewing, rotational viewing, up and down viewing, preliminary nose tip gazing, and near and distant viewing. After comparing signs and symptoms of ocular fatigue (which included tired eyes, sore/aching eyes, irritated eyes, watery eyes, dry eyes and hot/burning eyes) the exercise-group was found to have significantly decreased eye-fatigue scores compared with the control group. (8) While 60 minutes of eye exercises several times per week may seem like too much, you can benefit from similar practices in less time by following some of these tips:
- Try “palming” the eyes. This relaxes and revitalizes the eye muscles. It also stimulates the circulation of the aqueous humor. This is the liquid that runs between the cornea and the lens of the eye.
- Perform regular blinking exercise. The blinking reflex induces relaxation of the eye muscles and lubricates the eyes (especially if you wear contact lenses).
- Try sideways viewing. Take several minutes to focus on objects in the periphery of your visual field. This relaxes the tension of muscles strained by constant reading, looking straight forward and doing close work. Combining front and sideways viewing improves the coordination of medial and lateral muscles.
- Make circles with your eyes. Rotational viewing restores balance in the muscles surrounding the eyes and improves coordination of the eyes working together.
- Glance up-and-down. This helps balance the upper and lower eyeball muscles.
- Try nose-tip gazing. This will help the focusing power of the eye muscles and range of movements within the eye sockets.
- See a doctor to correct squinting if you notice yourself doing this often. Too much squinting can lead to tension and headaches.
3. Protect Your Eyes From the Sun
Lots of UV light hitting the eyes from the sun, or blue light exposure from electronic devices, can make eye strain and symptoms like headaches worse. Wear sunglasses or a hat while your face is in the sun to protect your eyes (bonus: this also helps prevent wrinkles, skin discoloration and, when coupled with good sleep, bags under your eyes!). Try not to directly stare into the sun. Stay out of direct sunlight during peak hours of the day when symptoms are bad (usually from about 10am-3pm, especially in the summer time).
4. Increase the Amount of Light In the Room When Reading
Trying to focus in low-light situations such as reading or watching TV in a dimly lit room, adds stress to the eyes. While working and reading, increase the amount of light so your eyes have an easier time making out objects.
5. Try Listening Instead of Reading
If you spend a lot of time reading off of your computer, phone or tablet, try listening via videos or audiobooks instead. This gives your eyes a break. It’s common to spend 8-9 hours at work each day reading small font on the computer or from papers. Then to come home and top this off with more computer use, tablet reading or watching television once at home. To reduce the need for focusing, commute listening to books on tape; listen to music or video off of your phone; and try to give your eyes a break by resting and closing them more often .
6. Get Enough Sleep & Rest
The muscles in your eyes can become extra tired, dry and painful if your entire body is already sleep deprived and exhausted. To prevent feeling overly-tired aim to get enough sleep each night. Most adults need about 7-9 hours. Natural sleep aids that can help you feel fully rested include essential oils, lowering the temperature in your room and changing your sleep position. If you sleep in a dry environment (such as a hot, dry bedroom that lacks moisture) you may also want to try using a humidifier to keep the eyes moist.
7. Keep Your Eyes Healthy
Reducing inflammation levels in the body and keeping your eyes healthy as you age can prevent eye strain symptoms from getting worse or turning into a more serious problem. Some of the reasons that eye pains and visual problems can progress can include: (9)
- Eating a poor diet that causes inflammation or health conditions such as diabetes, blood pressure changes, etc.
- Lots of muscular tension due to chronic stress.
- Other factors that cause inflammation and accelerated aging like a sedentary lifestyle, toxicity, drug use or smoking, etc.
- Lack of nutrients in key vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that support eye health.
Be sure to take care of your eyes by eating a nutrient-dense diet, getting enough physical activity and managing stress. Vitamins for healthy eyes specifically include those mentioned below. Other nutrients:
- Lutein and zeaxanthin.
- Antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin A.
- Other antioxidants like carotenoids, lycopene, glucosamine, etc.
- Some of the best foods that provide these eye vitamins and antioxidants include plant foods that are deeply colored, such as: carrots, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, green beans, eggs, all berries, papaya, mango, kiwi, melon, guava, corn, red bell peppers and peas. Other foods to support eye health are wild-caught seafood, grass-fed meat, bone broth and pasture-raised poultry. (10)
- Other nutrients found in these foods include anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids (can also be obtained from fish oil supplements) and zinc.
Precautions Regarding Eye Strain
Most of the time eye strain isn’t a very serious condition. But, symptoms that accompany eye fatigue can sometimes be a sign of a deeper condition. If you experience persistent headaches or migraines, lots of eye discomfort that interferes with your ability to see well, or other problems like seeing spots and/or double vision, seek out an ophthalmologist for an evaluation. This is especially important if you’re diabetic, over the age of 40 or have a history of eye disorders in your family. These can all put you at a greater risk for developing serious vision problems.
Final Thoughts On Eye Strain
- Eye strain, also called eye fatigue or asthenopia, is a very common condition. It causes symptoms like tired eyes, pain in or near the eyes, headaches, visual changes, dryness and redness.
- Causes of eye strain include too much time spent on electronic devices or reading, uncorrected vision problems, muscular tension, high levels of inflammation and stress.
- A combination of natural remedies like taking breaks from screen time, eye exercises, protecting eyes from too much sunlight, yoga practices and reducing inflammation reduce visual eye strain symptoms.