COVID, virtual working and Computer Vision Syndrome

Our friend Mark Salway recently wrote about his experience of the impact of home working and the increased time many of us are spending at our screens. You can read his blog here.

We’ve been interested in exploring this topic further and spoke with Professor Andrea Cusumano, the President of the Macula & Genoma Foundation to discuss his findings on this topic. He refers to it as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), we share more about this below.

The time we spend in front of tablets, computers and smartphones – defined as screen-time – has drastically increased in the last decade, and this may cause what is now known as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS).

Why can screen-time become a problem?

After a couple of hours spent in front of a screen, the user may experience one or more of these symptoms:

  • headache,
  • neck and / or shoulder pain,
  • pain in the eyes,
  • dry or irritated eyes,
  • excitability,
  • reduced concentration,
  • blurred vision.

The presence of any of these symptoms associated with the use of an electronic device can adversely influence the physical and emotional stability of the users and indicate the onset of Computer Vision Syndrome.

There are several factors that have a negative effect and contribute to the onset of CVS.

A wrong posture while working, together with the habit of not changing position (sitting with the neck bent and the face looking down at the screen, without straightening to look towards the infinity) leads to a general fatigue of the head-neck-shoulder complex, with consequent muscular stiffening of the shoulder and neck muscles and the eyes “blocked” in the reading position (convergence / myotic pupils / accommodation), without a constant release (distant focus). In addition, while looking at a screen the blink rate is significantly reduced (from 20–24 to 5–9 blinks per minute). These factors cause the described symptomatology.

In our patients we have noticed a difficulty in focusing, even when no refractive error is present such as to justify a sudden need of glasses, even from near, simulating an insufficiency of convergence, i.e. the difficulty to focus from near after a certain period of time spent looking at the screen.

How we can avoid CVS

In many cases we recommend a reduction of the working time at the computer (or of the use of tablets and smartphones), when possible, and the improvement of the working posture (for example by moving the screen away to at least 50 cm). Another positive habit is the reduction of the brightness of the screen, which should be slightly brighter than the environment. We also suggest the use the 20-20-20 technique, i.e. to focus an object placed at a distance of about 20 feet every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds) and to improve the posture, for example while using the smartphone it is better to keep head and shoulders back, not bent on the screen, while bringing the screen closer to the face and not the contrary: this can be initially uninstinctive, but will result very beneficial for the back in the end.

An important issue that we always highlight to our patients, especially to younger ones, is the damage that the blue light coming from the screens of electronic devices can cause to the eyes and also to the general health. Blue light has in fact a shorter wavelength and higher energy that can be harmful for the retina by accelerating the aging process of retinal cells. Blue light also plays an important role in the circadian rhythm and an excessive exposure to blue light, especially later in the evening, can alter the normal wake-sleep cycle, with important repercussions on sleep and general health. To this purpose, we suggest the use of lenses with specific protection against harmful radiations.

We do not intend to demonize technology, which can make our lives much easier, but we want to help people understand how the correct use of electronic devices can prevent harm and preserve our sight and quality of life.

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