Archive for Friday, September 26, 1997


September 26, 1997


Each year, 12 million people visit eye doctors for computer-related problems.

Knight-Ridder News Service

After 20 years in the work force, Suzanne O'Connor had come to expect arriving home in the evening with tired, dry eyes and an aching neck.

``I just thought this stuff was part of the job,'' said O'Connor, a department administrator at Stanford University Hospital who spends about 80 percent of her day in front of a computer monitor. ``Neck aches and eyestrain -- anyone who has a desk job expects it.''

Like O'Connor, millions of Americans who work in front of video display terminals have symptoms of what the American Optometric Assn. calls ``computer-related vision syndrome'': tired, irritated eyes; sore necks, backs and shoulders; headaches; blurry or double vision; and difficulty focusing after long days in front of the screen.

The association estimates 12 million people a year visit eye doctors for computer-related problems. That makes eyestrain and vision complaints by far the most common health problem reported by computer users.

Dr. Sharon Michel, an optometrist at Lawrence Family Vision Clinic, 3111 W. Sixth, said that compared to just three years ago, computer-related eye strain has gotten worse.

"Workers are on computers much longer hours of the day, from 8 to 10 hours," Michel said. "So the eye strain they're getting long-term is worse."

Her patients range in age from 18 to 58 and they're all suffering from the same eye problems.

"People have more headaches, dry eyes, burning and overall eye straining feelings," she said.

Businesses should be providing glare screens and address any problem each individual brings up, she said.

It often goes undetected

Vision problems haven't received as much attention as other health problems associated with computer use, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injuries. That's because vision problems, while uncomfortable, are not usually debilitating. Often, people don't associate their aching backs and blurry vision with computer use at all.

``The eyestrain problems are here today and gone tomorrow, so to speak,'' said Dr. James Sheedy, a clinical professor at the University of California-Berkeley and director of professional development at SOLA Optical in Petaluma, Calif. ``You go home; you get a good night's sleep; you wake up the next morning and the problems are gone, only to return the next day.''

But computer-related eye problems can be serious. ``I've seen some patients where their vision problems end up being so severe, they really can't continue their work,'' Sheedy said. ``I guess we would call that debilitating.''

Even if the problem doesn't keep a worker away from the computer, Sheedy said, ``You've got a productivity decrease here. When you've got people who are uncomfortable, they aren't going to be as productive.''

Trouble seeing the screen can lead to other maladies as users contort their bodies to get a better look. Hunching forward to read the small print ruins posture. So does tilting your head back to look through the bottom lens of a pair of bifocals.

``They say, `Oh, I'm tired,' or `Oh, my neck hurts,''' said Thomas L. Lim, a San Jose, Calif., optometrist who has set up a computer work station in his office so he can see exactly how his patients work, and then make eye-friendly adjustments. ``The big question we ask is this: `Do you notice this on the weekends, too?'''

Combine constant close focusing and existing eye problems with other computer-related behavior, and problems ensue.

For example, said Sheedy, studies show that people blink much less frequently when working on computers -- one study found the normal blink rate to be 22 blinks per minute and the computer-work blink rate to be just seven blinks per minute. In addition, people tend to open their eyes wider while staring at the screen. Both behaviors rob eyes of moisture, causing irritation.

Improperly arranged work spaces also contribute to the problem. Glare from windows or overly bright lights can tax eyes, as can improper positioning in front of the terminal. The problem has spawned a variety of products that claim to help prevent vision problems, from special computer-only eyeglasses to software programs that remind users to take breaks and work through eye exercises.

O'Connor decided to skip the software and take advantage of Stanford Hospital's ergonomics specialists first.

She had her work space analyzed. Then, she got a new desk chair and changed her position in front of the monitor. Now she makes sure she gets up from her desk and focuses her eyes on distant objects at least every hour or so.

``It has improved,'' she said of her eyestrain and pain at the end of the day. ``So I think anyone who's going to sit in front of a computer should look into making changes. There are ways to make it better, and we did.''

What you can do

Curtis Anderson has been in optometry for 17 years with his own clinic, Curtis Anderson Optometry, 932 Mass. In that time, Anderson said, it stands to reason the more people using computers, the more tired eyes he sees.

"We do have people that come in frequently and complain about eye strain, tired eyes and eye irritations," he said. "The more and more people use them, we seem to be getting more of it."

Anderson suggests taking frequent breaks, even if it's only to look away from the computer for a few minutes.

"Another important factor is blinking," he said. "When you're looking at computer screen you tend not to blink and blinking is important."

Proper lighting is also important.

"It's best to have your background lighting down so the screen shows up more with less glare," he said. "Don't have it in front of a window, either."

-- Business Editor Julie Rygh contributed to this story.

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