Tips to deal with computer visual syndrome

By Sheela Sarvananda

You've been hunched over the computer all day, churning out those endless reports for a boss who's cracking the whip. You're tired, your eyes are irritated and all you can think about is logging off your computer and going home at the end of a long day, in what seems like a string of long days.

Maybe, just maybe, if you can muster up enough energy, you might take a soothing bath and have a cup of chamomile tea — if sheer exhaustion doesn't threaten to overwhelm you before you hit the hay, of course.

It's easy to chalk this sense of fatigue up to a bout of the workaday blues, but think again. This may just be the onslaught of a medical issue facing regular computer users in the region and elsewhere: Computer Visual Syndrome (CVS).

The symptoms for CVS are varied, but can all be linked to overuse of the computer — blurred vision, eye strain, dry irritated and tired eyes, coupled with headaches, as well as neck and shoulder pains. If you haven't experienced this to a degree, count yourself among the lucky few.

In Southeast Asia, the syndrome is rearing its ugly head more frequently, with folks being online and "on the grid" as often as they are. The medical issue has become common, as more people turn to the computer for both work and play. In the region, Singaporeans spend the most time on their gadgets, especially computers — resulting in CVS being a burgeoning problem here.

And if you thought this was the extent of the problem, take a gander at these statistics (but don't look too closely, lest you strain your eyes):

  • Singaporeans spend the most time engaged in online media, averaging 25 hours per week.

  • With an internet penetration of 67 per cent, CVS is a growing problem in Singapore.

  • Research has shown that CVS can affect as many as 7 in 10 computer users.

  • In fact, research has shown that CVS can significantly reduce task performance by as much as 40 per cent.

According to Dr Yap Tiong Peng, senior consultant Optometrist of IGARD Group and member of the American Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association as well as the Singapore Optometric Association, CVS should be on the radar and a close eye needs to be kept on its progression.

"As the use of computers and even hand-held gadgets soar, more and more users will experience some form of vision problems — and at younger ages. CVS should not be dismissed as a minor problem as it can greatly impact your visual comfort and vision. Those who are symptomatic generally take more time to focus on a task and experience fatigue. Hence, they are less productive. This, is turn, reduces their quality of life."

So, here's the scenario in a nutshell: we all have two muscles involved in seeing. These are ocular muscles for eye movement and ciliary muscles for focusing. Let's imagine you are engaged in a repetitive activity for long periods of time — say the arduous task of updating your Facebook status and taking an Instagram picture of what you are having for lunch at your desk, all the while keeping an eye out for your boss lurking around the corner, so you can minimise that screen as deftly as Chuck Norris would deliver a flying kick at the drop of a hat. Now that's a lot of work and concentration. And it's only 12pm.

Here's what's happening with your eyes while you're doing all this: the two sets of muscles you're using are strained in the process, especially when you're engrossed in any online activity for over two hours. You'll also be blinking less — at 4 blinks per minute, compared to 18 blinks for non computer-related activities.

The end result? You have dry, irritated eyes that 'check out' and take your capacity for concentration and work with them. In addition, existing vision problems like under-corrected astigmatism, myopia (short-sightedness), and hyperopia (long-sightedness) can also add further stress to the eye, worsening symptoms of CVS.

So that's the bad news. And here's what you can do about it.

  • Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Get your eyes tested, to correct any underlying vision problems. It's critical that you stay on top of eye health, so that you can pre-empt any problems down the line

  • Shell out for a quality pair of glasses, invest in your health: Pay a little extra to ensure you wear a good pair at your workstation, should you need one. The right spectacles must incorporate light, hypoallergenic materials and be resistant to wear and tear. They should also fit snugly on your face, optimising comfort for prolonged use.

  • Blink more, stare less, as is done in polite society: Why you ask? Well, your computer will love you for your less confrontational approach towards it. More importantly though, frequent blinking coats your eyes with tears that nourish and cleanse your eyes. This keeps your vision on-point. So set a little alarm that reminds you to blink more every 30 minutes or so, and you should be on the way to clearer vision. It's pretty rudimentary stuff but it works.

  • Minimise glare, so your eyes won't flare: Another no-brainer, but worth your consideration. Bright glare and reflections from overhead fluorescent lights and desk lamps are major causes of eye-strain. Consider using an anti-glare screen or a glare-reduction filter to eliminate reflections and ease reading.

  • Sit pretty, but keep comfortable too: Create a more conducive environment for your eyes through proper ergonomic design and adjustment. For instance, sit 50 to 65 centimetres away from a computer monitor, with the 'sweet spot' of the screen 10 to 15 cm below the eyes. Also avoid facing direct light from windows as the difference in brightness between the screen and area behind it may be stressful for the eyes.

  • Eat right for strong sight: Load up your diet with fruits, nuts and green vegetables that are high in Vitamin E and Vitamin C. Vitamin E protects the cells of the eyes from damage caused by free radicals, which break down healthy tissue. Vitamin C prevents eye damage caused by sun exposure. Also, increase your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, typically found in certain types of fish such as tuna, salmon, and sardines. This reduces the risk of retina degeneration, one of the main causes of blindness.

Finally, and it may sound obvious, but rest your eyes and take care of them. Tyra Banks may tell you to 'smize' i.e. smile with your eyes, but perhaps it would behoove us more to 'bekize' — be kind to your eyes. Okay, the phrase is not as catchy and doesn't quite roll off the tongue, but maybe the message is more of a keeper in the long run. Our bodies work hard to keep us going and it's important to treat them right.